This review is spoiler free! Skip To The Verdict? »
Most people have never read a Superhero novel. It’s understandable, the genre is most represented by comics (and film, now more than ever). Superhero novels are perceived as being comic rip-offs or tie ins, or worse, comic book movie adaptation rip offs and tie ins. They’re right up there with the officially licensed cereal.
So it’s always exciting to see someone tackle the genre from outside of a major creative franchise.
Proxies of Fate is a superhero book without a known character, from a small publisher, written by a new writer. Yet, with all this juicy obscurity, Matthew Moses’ second novel has been generating small rumblings around the net since its release in February of this year. A small part of that is because of its review-friendly public relations stance (Matthew sent me a copy to read and has made pdf copies available) but much of it is because the book is genuinely enjoyable to read.
I mentioned that this is a Superhero story, but there’s no spandex or secret identities here, and no modern book sits solely in one genre. The origin of our characters is cosmic (like Green Lantern and so many other heroes), all Superhero stories include a bit of the savior myth, and the pages contain much methodically researched historical fiction. It takes place in the 1930s and in many ways it is a love letter to the publications of that era.
Some of the language and much of the plot is shaped by a modern perspective, but the science fiction is as classic as it gets. Two alien races meet above the planet Earth. The first is the fleet of the Krush, a race of scaly lizard men ready to raze the Earth as part of their ongoing campaign to conquer the cosmos. The other, a solitary Theria, is a classic Gray: pale skin, big black eyes, and frail physiology. Their confrontation leads them to chose proxies among the people of Earth, who will in turn decide the planet’s fate through their interaction. The title, then, is a pretty straightforward description of the book’s contents.
As you can gather, the basic storyline is not startlingly original or exceedingly complex, but don’t take this to mean that it’s predictable or cliche. The science fiction elements here are used well and give a sense of geeky nostalgia. I assume that to a younger reader (who most pulps are really written for) the book could seem quite fresh. The action moves quickly and there are even layers of political intrigue that tie into the events of the period.
Moses pays particular attention to the character back stories and motivations. He likes to describe their appearance and history as if he was introducing them in a script, even for minor players.
Sometimes this can be tedious, especially towards the end when we know a character will only be around for a couple pages. I didn’t feel like I needed everyone to be so explained, but I could understand how it would work well for younger readers.
Often it brings them closer to that pulp comic world – where one might spend 10 minutes looking at an illustration of a particularly well drawn hobo who, while only in one panel, seems to have been given a certain amount of the artist’s love. Aspects like this contributed to my feeling that this novel would actually be an excellent comic if someone desired to adapt it. All the elements are there.
For the main characters, the focus is perfect. Chris Donner, the Theria proxy, is a WWI vet that travels across an America I felt more drawn to as he interacted with the lost souls of the depression. Li Chen, the unfortunate recipient of the Krush’s “blessing,” was a particular page turner – I was anxious to get back to his sections and see how the young Chinese peasant would come through his terrible situation and whether the powers would turn out to be more of a curse. Perhaps because this is a novel and not an ongoing comic series, the book never settles into filler plot and constantly has the excitement and discovery of an origin story building straight to a dramatic climax.
I did have some other minor quibbles which I figured should be mentioned. New writers often seem to (perhaps unknowingly) fall back on catch phrases or well known colloquialisms. Sometimes this lends a bit of realism (we all say these things, though we might feel embarrassed for being cliche) but it might also feel too forced – a character saying “when it rains it pours” could induce the reader to wonder if that was widely said in the 30s. Is it anachronistic? Probably not, but noticing it brought me out of the story. The occurrences were sporadic, but could still have been cut down.
Second, while the book is a nicely bound and slightly oversize production – good weight, solid binding – the font is a bit too large for my taste. I’ve seen this in a couple science fiction books now. It makes me feel like it’s a book for a little kid, but then I remember that when I was a little kid all the science fiction I read was in beat up old paperbacks with tiny fonts. I feel like they could have cut down on costs and made a normal size paperback with a smaller font. That’s my own anal retentive personal preference though and after I got past it, I didn’t notice it.
There was too much good in here to let little things like that really impact me. The story contained genuine surprises – including some fun cameos for aficionados, such as name drops for Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz. While we knew that the proxies had to eventually confront each other, the climax came together in unexpected ways.
The jaded bitterness I had come to expect from superhero tales wasn’t there. I was satisfied and ready for more.
Proxies of Fate, the second book by Matthew Moses and hopefully not the last. Check it out.
This book stands on its own.
No need, dive right in! If you’ve seen any classic science fiction or read some pulp novels, you may enjoy it a little more. But I think everyone has some exposure to the elements of pop culture that help this novel work.
There are a lot of places you could go from here. Perhaps you’d enjoy Robert Heinlein’s early novels or The Best Alternate History Stories Of The 20th Century.