Nicky Drayden’s The Hero of Numbani is the first novel set in the world of Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch franchise. The book is a quasi-bildungsroman/origin story that follows a young Nigerian inventor, Efi Oladele, who creates one of the Overwatch’s tank heroes, the omnic Orisa. It’s aimed squarely at the YA crowd and, sandwiching the action sequences, we get plenty of Efi striving to balance the different facets of her life: friends & family, school, and her inventions.
With Gamers In Mind
Efi Oladele is a starry-eyed citizen of Numbani, a city in the Overwatch universe that’s notable for achieving harmony between humans and omnics (read: robots). When the villain Doomfist escapes from prison and begins wreaking havoc on Numbani, Efi decides to create Orisa, a hero who can stand up to the terrorist and restore peace to the city.
Like Orisa, Doomfist is a playable character in the Overwatch video game. In addition to him, music-based support character Lúcio and hacker extraordinaire Sombra also make brief appearances within the novel. Although none of the game’s other characters appear in The Hero of Numbani, Easter Eggs are scattered throughout that will appeal to readers who are familiar with the source material. Other heroes and locations from the game are regularly name-dropped, as are characters who appear only in Overwatch lore, and there’s even a veiled comment from Lúcio about the newly reformed Overwatch task force, the creation of which is the premise of the video game.
Efis and Doomfists and Omnics, Oh My!
Because of its YA demographic, The Hero of Numbani comes with a healthy dose of parental disapproval, strained friendships, and mechanical mishaps when Efi’s inventions go awry. The first quarter of the novel is primarily about Efi struggling with FOMO as she watches her old friends having fun without her at school because she’s been bumped up a few grades. This section tends to drag and it’s not until Doomfist makes his first appearance (in a terrorist attack at the Numbani airport, one of the spawn points on the game’s Numbani map) that things start to pick up.
Speaking of Doomfist, he’s the highlight of the novel. Efi is an intelligent, charming kid and Orisa’s origins provide some entertainment, but Doomfist’s Darwinian terrorism is the most compelling aspect of the story. He’s charming and dangerous in equal measure, and you can almost buy into his talk about how he’s humanity’s savior, challenging them so they don’t become complacent and subservient to the omnics they live with. Doomfist is so good that after he’s introduced, when he’s not around you’re mostly just wondering when he’s going start smashing things again (thankfully, he makes regular appearances after his grand entrance).
That leads me to one of the novel’s biggest drawbacks. While Efi is a compelling protagonist and Doomfist is given some standout moments, it’d be nice to have Overwatch content aimed at a slightly older crowd. There’s no need for Gears of War levels of carnage, but stories that are even slightly more mature would fit right in with the Overwatch franchise and raise the appeal of these tie-in novels.
Future novels in the series can also focus more on the reformed Overwatch team, rather than tertiary characters. Efi was wonderful for what The Hero of Numbani set out to accomplish, but as the series grows, it’ll be nice if they can transition firmly into an action/adventure lane and emphasize more of the game’s central characters.
Aside from that, as I mentioned earlier, the pacing is off until Doomfist arrives and afterwards the story still sputters anytime he’s out of the picture. There are also several examples of characters’ catchphrases from the video game making their way into the book—some of those Easter Eggs mentioned earlier. Most of these are fine, if a little ham-fisted, nods to the source material. However, characters yelling the name of their moves when they perform an attack is something that shouldn’t happen outside of an anime, so points were deducted for Doomfist yelling, “Meteor Strike!” to perform a—you guessed it—Meteor Strike.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Overwatch game you may also have trouble following the combat sequences. If you’ve played you’ll basically understand each attack, because the characters hew pretty closely to their video game abilities. But, especially in the case of Lúcio—whose powers, to be fair, don’t make much sense—Drayden has trouble describing what’s happening in a way that would make sense to people who aren’t already intimately familiar with his skill set. Although the battle sequences can feel cluttered, Drayden’s still a very talented writer and issues are never serious enough to make you lose interest.
Minor nitpicks aside, The Hero of Numbani is a legitimately good first novel in the Overwatch canon. It’ll please longtime fans of the video game and isn’t impenetrable for those new to the franchise. I’m not in its targeted age range, so not all of its narrative captivated me—and I do hope we get some Overwatch novels aimed at a slightly older audience in the future—but young adults will almost certainly get mileage out of the story.
All in all, this is an upbeat, fast read that expands on Overwatch’s lore, provides depth to Efi Oladele, who’s existed on the periphery of the Overwatch canon until now, and sets the stage for what could be a solid new series of YA books for gamers to dive into.