The Extraordinaries, TJ Klune (Tor Teen, 978-1-250-20365-6, $18.99, 399pp, hc) May 2020.
TJ Klune follows up The House in the Cerulean Sea with another compelling human drama that is set in a world like our own, but with a few unexpected fantasy elements. In Cerulean Sea it was people with magical abilities; this time around, in The Extraordinaries, it’s somewhat unconventional superheroes. Teen Nick Bell lives with his hard-working father and spends much of his time with a close-knit group of friends in Nova City, which is not remarkable in any way other than the fact that both a superhero and super villain also call it home. Shadow Star is the good guy, Pyro Storm is the bad guy, and although they have been around Nova City for only little while they have the entire city (especially the media) completely riveted. Nick is a devoted writer of fan fiction starring Shadow Star, on whom he has an enormous crush. It is, in fact, because of a brief encounter with Shadow Star that Nick embarks on the quest that largely propels the plot: he decides he wants to be “an Extraordinary” just like his hero.
Nick’s goal to be a superhero is driven by lingering trauma from his mother’s recent death in an armed bank robbery. If only he could have saved her, if only he could be there for others like Shadow Star is, then perhaps he would not feel so much like a failure. But becoming a superhero is complicated. Nick’s plans, one of which involves microwaving a bug just enough to make it radioactive and then getting it to bite him, are a bit…. well, not good (but definitely hilarious). His friends tolerate this because they love him and are used to his somewhat excessive personality. Part of that stems from his mother’s death and the intense grief that followed, but a lot is also due to ADHD. Klune does an excellent job writing about ADHD and how it dominates much of Nick’s life. There is also the concern from his father and friends about his lingering grief and allusions to “episodes” that Nick suffered soon after his mother’s death and the medication he now takes to mitigate them. In other words, Nick has a lot on his plate, and he has latched onto Shadow Star as the guy to emulate in dealing with it all.
Spoiler Alert: That might not be a good idea.
The deeper you dive into The Extraordinaries the more the issue of superheroes becomes something to unpack and consider. As Nick strives to find a path to superhero-dom, his friends enter into some philosophical and not-so-philosophical discussions about what makes someone special, and questions start to stack up. Why do superheroes do what they do, and why are they always paired with super villains as a good/evil balance, and what power is exerted by the media on how their stories are presented, and why is Shadow Star in Nova City in the first place? Nick initially ignores all of this while maintaining a determined devotion to his quest but, in the end, he finds himself in the center of the biggest superhero story ever and he has to get to the bottom of it. His friends might be keeping things from him, his dad might be in danger, and his best friend, Seth, might be the guy he really is in love with. All of that and finding yourself a pawn during a superhero/super villain clash? It’s a lot.
With The Extraordinaries, Klune proves again with great panache that he knows human emotion and knows how to transport it into a fantastical world better than most authors writing for teens today. While the supers are flying around and blowing up buildings, it is always who they might be and how their antics affect the lives of Nick and those he cares about that matters most. This group of teens is complicated and resourceful and brave and terrified and all so damn lovely to read about. I was so glad, in the final pages, to see that there is a sequel to The Extraordinaries due out next year. TJ Klune is doing powerful work that inspires and impresses. He is a gift to our troubled times, and his novels are a radiant treat to all who discover them.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2020 issue of Locus.
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