So many queer readers cleave to superhero stories because we know what it’s like to live a secret identity. We live within the dissonance between what the world wants from us and who we wish we could be. We know what it is to be caught between what is expected and what is inextricable from our deepest selves, and to have our most unique powers be the most isolating force in our lives–with the potential to cost us everything and everyone we love most.
In T.J. Klune’s The Extraordinaries, queer superpowers don’t have to be a metaphor anymore. Klune gives us an entirely queer central cast, with no homophobia save for a few awkward comments from a generally well-meaning father. Here, queer love and desire gets to breathe on the page. Klune not only explores teen queerness in its most awkward, nerdy, fanfic-inspired throes, but interrogates the queer celebrity infatuation, the crush on the hot popular kid—the dissonance between idolization and authentic, genuine attraction. And from it comes a queer romance that’s as tender as it is magic.
Nick Bell loves Nova City’s Extraordinaries. Well, he loves the superhero, Shadow Star, not his archnemesis, the evil Pyro Storm. Nick really loves Shadow Star…as in, he’s in the middle of writing an enormous, multi-chapter RPF (real person fiction) fic featuring Shadow Star and Original Male Character Nate Belen who is definitely not completely a self-insert. It’s the most popular fic in the fandom, and the closest Nick will ever get to meeting the superpowered guy who’s totally destined to be his soulmate—or so he thinks.
One afternoon, Nick and his friend Gibby are about to get mugged, and Shadow Star saves them. More smitten than ever, especially when Shadow Star somehow knows his name, Nick decides that the best love interest for a superhero is another superhero, and thus begins his scheme to become Extraordinary himself.
That’s a pretty extreme move, but it’s not all about Shadow Star. Nick’s mother died a few years ago, and Nick’s dad is a cop. Nick figures, if he becomes Extraordinary, he can protect his father. He’s spent his life feeling insecure, but if he becomes Extraordinary, he’ll be someone else—someone who’s not a disappointment. He’ll be a hero and he’ll save the ones he loves.
So when an opportunity emerges to do just that, Nick nearly leaps at it—and discovers several very large secrets about Extraordinaries, the narratives of good and evil, and even his own heart.
There’s so much to love about this novel. Nick’s voice is energetic and distinct. He’s still processing his grief, and it influences his choices every day in a way that feels completely real and relatable for me. I love how much he cries—especially when he checks himself for not being masculine enough, then checks himself again, shakes that off, and lets himself cry. He hugs his father, and his father hugs him back, and they take care of each other.
Nick’s personal experience with ADHD and how it affects his life, from the pills he takes to his interactions with loved ones, homework, and fandom, feels very full and honest. When he feels like he’s “too much,” his best friends and family don’t let him forget that they love him, for his hyperfixations and his mile-a-minute mouth and everything that makes him who he is—especially his best friend, Seth. His queer found family serves as the beautiful core of this novel, and it’s so refreshing to see an established f/f relationship alongside emerging m/m desire.
As much as there’s fun antics, explosions, and plenty of wrenching twists, my favorite part is the sweet, genuine, fluffy romance. No big spoilers, but queer teens actually get to be both love interest and superhero here, and it feels restorative, on top of being terribly cute. Nick says it himself—he wanted to be part of a big gay superpowered epic, and I mean. Who among us hasn’t? And though it may not be exactly as he expected, he finally gets to. The romance is both swoony and cringey; it’s awkward and teenage and unapologetically gay and excellent.
Throughout the novel, I had one major discomfort: the portrayal of Nick’s father and the narrative of police heroism. It read like Klune wanted to emphasize that though this is a novel about superheroes, we shouldn’t lose sight of the real folks who protect our cities on a daily basis, and respect their heroism—and that did not sit right with me. It’s not the simple matter of Nick’s father being an officer, but the fact that it consistently calls for carceral justice and police action. There are many examples, it’s the entire culture of the book. Nick’s father was demoted because he “punched a witness.” Nick asserts that cops should be paid more. When he ends up in a cop car, he jokes “record this so I can use this in a lawsuit I’m going to file against my dad and the city for police brutality.” Later, when Nick’s father saves a homeless woman and her baby, she asks, in a thick accent, if they’ll take her baby away—his dad asks if she’s a good mother, she says she tries, and he replies, “then I don’t think they will.” I do not have the same faith in police or child protective services, and the scene felt like Klune wanted to clarify that cops protect and serve “good people.”
Sure, copaganda is pervasive in media, and a police presence is almost a given in most superhero stories, but that’s a very well-documented issue, and Klune chooses to emphasize an overtly positive stance. T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea is one of my favorite reads of this year, and I enjoyed the majority of this book so much—I love the rest of the father’s character, and his relationship with Nick—but I did not expect to find myself reading pro-cop rhetoric in a story about queer vigilantes, especially during Pride, this year. In a novel that ultimately complicates blanket understandings of “good versus evil,” that evidences how the media narrative of heroism and villainy can be and often is corrupt, we’re still supposed to accept a city’s police force as inherently honorable everyday heroes? They’re not even as removed as “super police” or magic or anything, the culture feels like that of America’s cops. I kept waiting for there to be some recognition, some criticism, but at least here in book one, it didn’t come. Instead of a superhero story that suggests cops are the true heroes after all, I want one that speaks to the emergence of superheroes, imperfect as they are, in response to how the current carceral system is racist, violent as hell, and far from restorative.
I have my reservations, and I do hope they get addressed in the upcoming novels. I think there’s a lot of potential for it. I don’t want to keep reading about good cops, but I love Nick Bell, and I very much want to know what’s next for him and his friends. The Extraordinaries is fun and funny, sweet and twisty, campy and canny and smart. It explores how far we’ll go to protect the people we love—not unfamiliar ground, but it feels fresh when it’s this unabashedly queer. It centers queer love, queer friendship, queer healing, and queers with magic, and sets up its sequels beautifully. I look forward to how they deliver. This is not a coming out story, but it’s an unmasking anyway—of getting to live as your true self, in all your nerdiness, grief, anxiety, love, and power.
The Extraordinaries is available from Tor Teen.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.