Currently, Pocket Star Books (a division of Simon and Schuster) seems to hold the rights to produce Marvel novels. In association with Marvel Press they've released a handful of books in the last couple of years, including two Spider-Man books - Spider-Man: Down These Mean Streets and this one here.
Both are in standard paper-back format (4.25" x 6.75") each just over 300 pages. This one is by Jim Butcher, who according to the notes at the back is a huge Marvel fan (especially Spidey). He's also a successful fiction writer with a decent track record.
It's a heck of a job, writing a Spidey novel. You're rarely allowed to play with continuity - which means that at the end of it all, you have to leave things as they started. That's a huge constraint on any novel - it's a foregone conclusion that an existing character is going to survive. New characters introduced for the story are, by stark contrast, very likely to die or vanish forever at the close of the book.
In the other direction, the recent novels expect the writer to generally respect and obey existing continuity. That wasn't always the case, the earlier Marvel novels were written out of continuity, but these days the books are often considered to be part of the overall Spider-Man canon.
To set the scene then, this story is set shortly after the JMS run on Amazing Spider-Man and especially the death of Morlun. Aunt May is alive, knows Peter's identity, and lives in an apartment. Peter and MJ are together again, all following her kidnapping, rescue and subsequent temporary departure for Hollywood. However, this all occurs well before the events of Civil War.
I'd rather not give away every twist and turn in the novel, since you may well want to read it yourself. But most of the key aspects are pretty clear from the cover, so it's safe enough to offer a quick summary.
First up, the villains of the piece are three of Morlun's cousins - lead by Mortia, who is faster than Morlun and nearly as strong. She has a couple of henchmen brothers with here, slower and dumber, but strong as Morlun. They're out for revenge and lunch - and Spidey's the main course, naturally.
Lined up as aperitif is the lovely Black Cat. The Rhino starts off as a hired henchman working for the bad guys, but as a totemistic animal-based super-powered guy, he's also a tasty little snack for Mortia and Company, so his loyalty is somewhat tested.
Since Peter was no match for Morlun, he's tested to the limit by the threesome who come to eat up his life force. He's forced to go to Doctor Strange for assistance, though the Doctor explains that he cannot directly assist him, as the Ancients (the name for Moruln's people) are primal forces of nature, and he dare not shift the balance of nature.
That doesn't mean that the Doctor can't back-hand him a little hint or two. That, combined with the combined cunning of Peter and Felicia is enough to give him a fighting chance, even with so many other factors stacked against him.
As in most of the solo Spider-Man novels, there's a need for at least two sub-plots. Firstly, there has to be a Mary-Jane sub-plot, and secondly there needs to be a Spider-Man at work (in this case, school-teacher) sub-plot. The MJ sub-plot involves her getting an acting job (as Lady Macbeth) out on the edge of town, buying a car and needing to learn how to drive. Additionally, there's MJ/Felicia cat-fighting to add flavor.
The school-teacher sub-plot concerns Peter's role as temporary basketball coach, and the challenge to reach a talented by arrogant young kid and persuade him to drop his attitude for once and accept a little help in order to succeed.
There's no Aunt May sub-plot. As in most novels, she's just too difficult to tie-in at any real level, so she gets shipped off safely onto an Arctic cruise for the duration.
With the key elements in place, the standard events ensue. MJ has her own difficulties, but she and Peter are madly in love with lots of smooching. There's plenty of fighting, with Peter initially being pushed back. Felicia is there with her security firm providing a steady stream of intel, just enough to allow him to figure out the key before the final big showdown.
The basketball sub-plot is present in the first couple of chapters, then takes a back seat as the life-and-death stuff naturally takes precedence. But then Peter takes the lesson he learned from the battle (the importance of teamwork) and applies to to finally reach the young kid.
It's all textbook stuff, we've seen it several times already. The only real difference is in how well it's done. And in this case, it's really quite well done indeed.
Writer Jim Butcher clearly is a true Spidey fan. His use of the characters (especially the Rhino and Felicia) is faithful and accurate. He writes good battle scenes, and competent soppy scenes (though I kind of tired of the unshakable Peter/MJ love thing by the end). He did a nice job of gradually turning the tide in Spidey's favor. Though I have to say that once Doctor Strange offered a little help, I never really doubted how things were going to turn out.
Butcher has a couple of annoying habits. He throws in lots of pop-culture references, which unless you've seen the right TV shows and movies will be pretty much lost on you. Fortunately, he and I seem to have very similar tastes, but a lot of younger kids might have problems getting some of the more exclusive gags.
Worse than that though, Jim has one habit which is irritating. Very.
He over-uses the technique of finishing a paragraph with short sentences, which becomes tiresome after a while. Exceptionally so.
It's a cheap trick, which you can get away with on occasion, but when done to death can really start to grate. Painfully.
Enough. That was one of the few stylistic points I could find to complain about. For the rest of the book, Butcher's a more-than-capable wordsmith. On a few occasions he does get a little heavy handed with the chapter introductions, clearly trying to introduce a more lyrical tone for the opening couple of paragraphs before leaping into the action once more. It's not always totally convincing, and is occasionally jarring. But it's no big deal - surely there's a repressed poet in all of us?
I was tempted to give the story three and a half-webs just for general competence and solidity, but really there are some excellent points which deserve a higher rating.
Firstly, there's the tight integration with historical continuity - the Rhino's back-story is carefully worked. But secondly there's just some very nicely worked scenes which are deft and amusing. The co-operation between Peter and the Rhino is far better than most such scenes are managed. Doctor Strange's assistant Wong gets a nice couple of vignettes. Plus of course, MJ's crashing appearance in the final showdown.
While not exactly eye-wateringly beautiful, it's competent at worst, and clever at best. I'll happily give it four webs and a recommendation as one of the better Spider-Man Novels of the last twenty years.
Highlight of the book? Spidey is arguing that he's never been a team player, when Felicia points out that the webhead is the biggest Team-Up slut in New York. Ouch!