One doesn’t usually expect a rich world-building experience from a superhero novel, although one of the many reasons for it is that, most often, superhero novels are either based in real Earth-cities, or is at least situated in a sort of universe that is very Earth-like. In some capacity, it resembles that of an urban fantasy setting, swapping out the paranormal magic systems with more power-based ones. Gatlon City from Marissa Meyer’s Renegades series is set on an Earth that is not our own, with prodigies that are granted superpowers, although not all powers have a use in the modern culture.
Warning: spoilers abound.
The Science Behind the Prodigy
The superpower-based magic system holds a very tight fist on the development of the other aspects of world-building, so it makes sense to discuss it first. Not everyone in this world has powers, and it’s difficult to ascertain or even guess at a percentage, since practically all of the main and minor characters are prodigies. There are two ways that prodigies are made. One is that they are born with their powers, suggested to be the less common of the two. Two examples are Sketch, whose drawings come to life, and The Bandit, who can steal other prodigies’ powers. The other is that, through some traumatic event, people suddenly find themselves with abilities, ones that supposedly connect to the circumstances of the trauma.
The Puppeteer and Cyanide both have powers that directly correlate to their traumatic event: the Puppeteer’s involved a doll, and thus, he found himself able to cast strings on people and move them to his will, and Cyanide was bullied with acids when he was younger, thus giving him the ability to work easily and adeptly as a nefarious chemist. But others are less direct. Nightmare (Nova) found herself able to put people to sleep after a man put a gun to her head, and the Magpie (Maggie) found herself able to steal valuable metals after being shot at as a one-year-old.
The source of prodigy abilities is described somewhat belatedly. In Supernova, the old woman and Nova discussed theories regarding where prodigies get their power. It’s clear that there are multiple, but the presence of Nova’s miniature star gives credence to one in particular, one that dealt with stars and a certain mystical element that Nova’s father was able to directly create from. It’s also suggested Adrian’s drawing abilities are connected to the same force.
As is the case with many superpower magic systems, it’s not limited by any particular kind of ability. Similar to Graces in the Graceling Realm, they can be as widespread, and as useless, as one can imagine. In addition to the traditional super-strength, invincibility, invisibility, flight, and so forth, there is a character who can walk through mirrors and a character who can make origami figures come to life. The only limitation is that, in effect, a character really only gets one ability that can be stretched or expanded with their experience level. Captain Chromium is invincible as well as strong, but both stem from his connection to the chromium metal.
Lastly, some characters are also capable of creating an artifact that becomes magical on its own, though certain artifacts only work with their creator, some work with any prodigy, and some work for anyone at all. How the artifacts are made, and why certain prodigies are able to make these magically enhanced pieces, isn’t exactly clear, but they exist.
History of Prodigy Relations
Primarily after Nova gets a position in the artifacts department, the reader gets a better sense of how prodigies are regarded. For a long time, prodigies were feared, attacked and killed whether or not their abilities were conventionally dangerous. Like witches, their magic was thought to be inherently evil and dangerous. This led to the rise of Ace Anarchy some twenty years ago, where he wished for nothing else save that prodigies could walk about, unafraid of the others. It led to chaos, death, and destruction.
To combat Ace and create an end to the madness, a group of five created what became known as the Renegades. With the help of baby Max, AKA the Bandit, they were able to subdue Ace and the Anarchists, and bring about peace that led to an exponentially better viewing of prodigies from the general public. Prodigies could put their own abilities to the test to determine if they were capable of joining the ranks of the Renegades, and the organization, growing world-wide, created a code of conduct that ensured the populace felt safe, leading to the idolization of Renegades.
Gatlon City Culture: The Rise of Renegades
One of the main points of contention in the story is the self-righteous nature of the Renegades. They are widely regarded as Heroes with a capital H, and the existence of Anarchists and others who don’t play by the rules become thought of as Villains. The distinct nature of good vs bad leads to an almost difficult to swallow concreteness that all “average” citizens of Gatlon City think that the Renegades can do no wrong, while at the same time saying that the organization must pander to the goodwill of the populace. People cheer on the Renegades during the parade in the first book, and another character fawns over Oscar, AKA Smokescreen, for helping rescue her from a hostage situation.
In fact, this whole insistence that the Renegades are faultless is why Nova is so against them from the offset. She’s mad at them for putting themselves on that pedestal, allowing her to put her complete faith in them as a child that resulted in her parents’ deaths. While this particular line of thought is contradictory, the idolization of the Renegades still has setbacks that Nova rightly points out. The exact nature of prodigy healers is not well-described, as it’s suggested that no two prodigy powers are alike, but the population’s heavy faith on prodigy healers prevents the more natural inventiveness and innovation from the science community.
Economy and Class Implications
Ace Anarchy’s actions, and the Renegades’ subsequent response, has led to a somewhat stunted economy. Once again, reliance on prodigies stunts innovation, so that one’s choice in occupation is minimal. In addition, Adrian also notes the somewhat dissheveled areas of Gatlon City, places that have simply not been attended to yet. The general vibe of the city is one still broken by an old war.
And the Renegades’ determination to divide prodigies between good and evil, those who work for the Renegades versus those who don’t, leads to a very distinct, weighted class system when it comes to where the power rests. In fact, the war against villains gives the immoral characters more power, as the Renegades and the remnants of Ace Anarchy’s crew go head-to-head and leave the rest of the populace to deal with the aftermath. Prodigies with useless powers are looked down upon, though they come to call themselves the Rejects, but even they have more voice than the normal, non-prodigy folks. In fact, what might have helped the narrative would have been to incorporate a non-prodigy so that the reader could get a better read on non-prodigy thoughts on the prodigy population.
Gatlon City and Its Connection to the Outside World
I would say that, from a world-building perspective, one of the more disappointing elements was that of geography. In the series, the Renegades mention having affiliate branches set up throughout the entire world, and real-world countries are referenced in terms of architecture and design. Yet the exact location of Gatlon City is unclear. Likewise, the public relations with the Renegade branches in other countries remains unclear. While all we get of Gatlon’s history is that of Ace Anarchy and the Renegades, world-wide, it wasn’t until very recently that people began seeing prodigies in a more positive light, yet it seems hard to believe that the rest of the world would change their mind about prodigies because one good group of them fought against one bad group. How the branches became established is left unsaid.
The Renegades series focuses heavily on its magic system when it comes to the various world-building elements. And while that’s not a bad thing, allowing for explanations of why innovation is stunted and also leaving readers with a pretty good grasp of what these prodigies characters are capable of, it does leave the story with a few holes. It’s important to weave in other elements and ideas, ones not directly related to the magic system, in order to make the setting feel more three-dimensional.