Review: A Once Crowded Sky

Posted: April 19, 2013 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Tom King

I’ve read comics since I was a kid but I could hardly be called a devoted fan. I’ve always found it too difficult to keep up with the individual arcs – there were no comic shops nearby and so there were great periods of time where I was out of the loop. Having recently moved to the city it has become easier to get my hands on comics but I much prefer graphic novels as it’s a much simpler way to follow the story. Modern comics cost far too much to sample a wide variety of characters and half the pages seem to be filled with advertisements. It’s for all these reasons that superhero novels appeal to me so greatly. Currently it’s an under-tapped genre and so it’s quite exciting when a new author enters the fold. A ONCE CROWDED SKY (Amazon) is Tom King’s debut novel – a superhero story with literary sensibilities.

From Amazon: The superheroes of Arcadia City fight a wonderful war and play a wonderful game, forever saving yet another day. However, after sacrificing both their powers and Ultimate, the greatest hero of them all, to defeat the latest apocalypse, these comic book characters are transformed from the marvelous into the mundane. After too many battles won and too many friends lost, The Soldier of Freedom was fine letting all that glory go. But when a new threat blasts through his city, Soldier, as ever, accepts his duty and reenlists in this next war. Without his once amazing abilities, he’s forced to seek the help of the one man who walked away, the sole hero who refused to make the sacrifice–PenUltimate, the sidekick of Ultimate, who through his own rejection of the game has become the most powerful man in the world, the only one left who might still, once again, save the day.

A ONCE CROWDED SKY poses an interesting “What If”. What happens when superheroes lose their powers and have to adjust to the world the rest of us live in? It flips the whole paradigm on its head. The heroes of Arcadia City are pretty generic, but the masked personas aren’t as important as the ordinary people they are when the spandex comes off. Ultimate, PenUltimate, Soldier of Freedom, Star-Knight, and the lot serve established roles – allowing readers to jump right into the story and know who is who without loads of exposition. A ONCE CROWDED SKY is told from a number of perspectives, each chapter divided into “issues” of separate “comics” in a neat layout choice. Outside of the primary protagonists, PenUltimate and Soldier of Freedom, the depth of the characters is rather thin.

PenUltimate (or Pen for short) is the last remaining hero with powers. When all the other heroes gave their power to Ultimate in order to prevent the coming apocalypse, Pen stayed home afraid. Ultimate made the final sacrifice to once again save the day but the heroes were left to adjust to a world without high-speed aerial battles and monstrous villains. For his cowardice the heroes despise Pen, who just wants to live a normal life in the aftermath of final adventure. When a new crisis comes to Arcadia City, Soldier of Freedom finds himself responsible for turning Pen into the hero he was always meant to become.

Pen is the reluctant hero, a sidekick that never asked to fly amongst the protectors of Arcadia. After years of fighting alongside the greatest paragon of them all, Pen set aside the cape in order to be with the woman he loved. He regrets failing to be there when Ultimate needed him most. Soldier of Freedom is the essence of patriotism, stepping up to serve whenever his country has called him to action. He is an old dog, weary of fighting the never-ending battle. The other characters serve to flesh out the primary protagonists and their history while painting a picture of extraordinary people caught by ordinary circumstances. Some of the heroes, such as Star-Knight, take the loss of power better than others.

Still, all eagerly anticipate the day when they can once more play the game. It’s an interesting look at motivation, obsession, and coping in a world where you no longer recognize your place. It’s also makes for a thoughtful story about heroism and sacrifice. Despite a lack of powers, many of the heroes jump at the opportunity to get back into the game when crisis comes calling – acting in the equivalence of emergency workers. The plot has a number of twists, one of which surprised me and pleased me in equal measure. The hunt for the perpetrator of the “cracks” is lacking, the heroes go about from one disaster to the next without putting much effort into tracking down the cause. I suppose that could be chalked up to the influence of certain comics – detectives, these characters, are not. There is action and violence, though the progression of Pen and Soldier are the main concern. A ONCE CROWDED SKY succeeds as a tale of redemption and loss though the pacing does drag in places, and the ending feels particularly drawn out. I think much of the blame can be placed on King’s use of repetition. The technique accomplishes what I believe the author set out for, but it does weigh down the prose in places.

A ONCE CROWDED SKY is Tom King's debut novel - a superhero story with literary sensibilities. WATCHMEN + REDSHIRTS. Interested? You should be.

In a lot of ways A ONCE CROWDED SKY is like a mash-up between Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN (Amazon) and John Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS (EBR Review). It’s not nearly as dark as WATCHMEN, nor quite so self-aware as REDSHIRTS but it does inhabit a comfortable middle ground between the two. It’s a very contemporary story with roots in Dante Alighieri’s THE PARADISO (Amazon). I’d also be remiss not to mention the incredible illustrations courtesy of Tom Fowler. These beautiful black and white comic panels add a whole extra level of enjoyment to the story, serving as a reminder of the pulp traditions of this literary debut.

“Another battle won. Well done. Well done.”

  • Recommended Age: 16+
  • Language: Plenty of foul language
  • Violence: Yes, some of it graphic
  • Sex: None


  • Tim Ward says:

    Quality review, nick. There is a little lack in actively discovering the perpetrator of the cracks, but Tom resolved that by making said perp active in hunting down the heroes, and maintaining my interest in the mystery. I also agree that there was a little pacing issues, but the second half was a very quick read.

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