For as many Marvel movies as we’ve seen in the last decade, do we really known Stan Lee as a writer? The Marvel Cinematic Universe is such a team effort—and Lee’s influence on pop culture so far-reaching—that it’s challenging for fans unfamiliar with his original comics to understand how his personal storytelling idiosyncrasies have influenced the MCU.
Alliances: A Trick of Light , Lee’s posthumous audio-first project (and first novel for adults), goes a long way towards solving this problem. While co-created by Ryan Silbert (Origin Story Entertainment) and Luke Lieberman (Red Sonja) and written in collaboration with Kat Rosenfeld (Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone), A Trick of Light puts Lee’s voice front and center.
It’s not just Lee’s authorial voice that leads in A Trick of Light; it’s his literal voice, too. The story boasts grown-ish star Yara Shahidi as the narrator, but the audiobook kicks off with a warmly personal introduction from Lee, himself:
“Welcome, true believers. This is Stan Lee! We’re about to embark on the exploration of a fantastic new universe, and the best part is that you are gonna create it with me. You may know me as a storyteller, but hey, on this journey, consider me your guide. I’ll provide the witty and wonderful words, and you’ll create the sights, sounds and adventures. All you need to take part is your brain! So take a listen, and think big. No—BIGGER. We’re making an epic!”
Time will tell how this intro will be styled when the print book reaches shelves this fall, but no listener will miss Lee’s enthusiastic into, as if he’s as delighted by his own presence at the start of this new Alliances project as we are. This is Stan Lee! Calling in from the great beyond to help us make storytelling magic! Who wouldn’t be excited?
To answer this question, the story begins at a time nearly indistinguishable from our own. Humanity is “lost within its own techno bubble” with each citizen “the star of their own digital fantasy.” To explore the tension inherent to this state of affairs, they introduce two teen protagonists: Nia, a girl who has grown up in isolation and is educated by AR models of history and the natural world, and Cam, a wannabe YouTube star who thinks sailing alone straight into the unpredictable dangers of the Erie Triangle will be his ticket to influencer glory. The teens are not only skilled hackers on their own, but they also have varying strains of cyberkinetic powers.
This is a perfect recipe not just for teen adventure and technological revolution, but for audio-first storytelling. With the story’s cyber-set action and drama, there’s no end of openings for atmospheric musical cues or tension-building sound effects. While the effects in A Trick of Light can be a bit overbearing—the Star Wars audiobooks have set a high standard for effects-heavy storytelling that anything with less subtlety is bound to disappoint—there’s no denying they add dimensions that the print version will lack.
Shahidi’s narration also adds layers to the experience that listeners won’t want to miss. Her performance is more meditative than one might expect for a story built around lightning-fast cyber connections, and while a few of the action sequences are hard to follow at such a steady pace, her thoughtfulness serves to counterbalance the frenetic action in Cam and Nia’s lives. (There’s also one sequence featuring an Alex Jones-type singing “a surprisingly melodic rendition” of “I Feel Pretty” that finds Shahidi being directed to croak out of tune, but that’s a separate issue.)
That said, while A Trick of Light is an enjoyable audio experience, it has flaws as a novel-length project. Between Nia’s mysteriously overbearing father, Cam’s dead-or-maybe-disappeared tech genius dad’s ex-partner’s bionic daughter’s secret world-dominating tech company, the hive-minded alien taking over bodies in her attempt to enact revenge on at least one of those dads, the domestic relationships Cam is trying to maintain, and the romantic relationship Cam and Nia develop, there’s too much going on for the casual listener to follow.
Gender is also treated in a frustratingly outdated way. Every villain but two are female (and of the two that aren’t, one is revealed to have just been a misunderstood hero), and female-coded things (pink blended coffee drinks, the singing of “I Feel Pretty”) are presented as inherently humiliating and bad.
The story’s cliffhanger suggests this will be a new series, so A Trick of Light doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to excite the reader about what’s to follow and get them thinking about humanity’s reliance on technology. Plus, it’s Stan Lee!
A Trick of Light is available to download exclusively from Audible. Look for the hardcover version to hit shelves this fall.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.