John W. Otte’s debut novel, Failstate, follows Robin Laughlin (the secret identity of the titular hero) on a journey of faith and freedom.
Aimed at a Christian YA audience, this Christy Award-nominated novel explores a niche that has yet to be fully explored by Christian authors and is sure to appeal to teen readers.
Why did Robin Laughlin (a.k.a. Failstate) think being a superhero on a reality show would be a good idea? Things seemed so simple: Win the show, become an official, licensed hero. But with his brother, Ben (a.k.a. Gauntlet) stealing America’s heart-and with Rob’s own powers proving too unwieldy for TV-Failstate begins to wonder if he’s going to live up to the failure in his name. Until one of his friends and fellow competitors is murdered.
Robin vows to find the killer, and he sets out on a very real quest to unmask the hidden villain. Can Failstate find justice? Or will his lunk of a big brother ruin everything-including taking the girl who has stolen Rob’s heart? Very soon, Failstate and Gauntlet will come to blows. Which has been the villain’s plan all along.
The book is a fast read. I read it in about 6 sittings in my spare time. Since its target audience is young adults this is a good thing if you have any reluctant readers in the house.
The setting and context of the story were interesting devices that the author employed. The idea of wanna-be superheroes competing for a license on a reality TV show was interesting. The city of New Chayton could be any major metropolitan are in the U.S. and incorporates various facets from those cities quite nicely.
Overall, the plot was coherent and easy to follow but towards the end things seem to get very compressed. A lot of different threads start converging and overlapping and this feels a little crowded. It’s sometime difficult to follow the main theme of the story amid all the chaos.
The story of Failstate trying to find justice for his fallen comrade gets muddled with a story about a boy with superpowers learning to control them and finding faith in himself, those around him, and God. All of these are great plots by themselves but didn’t seem to mix evenly in the story. It’s like having lumpy mashed potatoes (I happen to like lumpy mashed potatoes but some people prefer creamy). Perhaps if Otte had taken a little more time to develop each of these plot points this reader wouldn’t have felt such a disconnect with these devices.
Characters are fully developed and have depth not normally seen in YA novels. Granted, some of the characters are very stereotypical but Robin (Failstate), his brother Ben (Gauntlet), and Veritas (another superhero) all have multiple facets to their personalities. John W. Otte uses his experience as a minister to bring the characters alive.
The book could use a few more passes with a red pen. There were some typographical and grammatical errors in the book (nothing major) and I think the story could have been either tightened up or fleshed out bit more. It sits in this weird spot where I feel it could be a little longer or shorter and still be better. Again, this my my own uninformed opinion so you may have a different assessment.
Overall, Failstate is a good book. The story, setting, and plot are evocative of Saturday morning cartoon heroes out to save the day. I’m recommending the book to my kids and it will be interesting to hear their opinions. I rate this book 3.5/5 stars.
Positives: good story and setting, fast-paced, well-developed characters.
Improvements: some editing and plot refinements.
About the Author
John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister, husband, and father of two. He graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a theatre major, and then from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
By night, he writes unusual stories of geeky grace. He lives in South St. Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and two boys.