The Extraordinaries by TJ Klume
TJ Klune’s 2020 novel The Extraordinaries is only the second-best YA/superhero/coming of age/Spiderman movie parody/neurodivergent/ queer rom-com I’ve read this year. I’ll explain at the end of the review why it only came in second.
Nicholas Bell is sixteen, gay and out to his father, friends and school. Nick lives with ADHD. His mother was killed a few years ago, and he and his cop dad share a loving but uneasy relationship. Nick’s life is further complicated by his crush on one of the two of Nova City’s superpowered, or Extraordinary, people—Shadow Star. Nick writes voluminous fanfic about Shadow Star and obsesses over him daily. It’s easy to obsess over Star and his nemesis, PyroStorm, because the two Extraordinaries seem to clash more and more frequently, their battles are becoming dangerous and violent.
Closer to ground level, junior year has started, complicating things even further, since he barely passed his sophomore year. Over the summer, Nick had a fling with Owen Burke, son of a pharmaceutical tycoon. Owen broke up with him, but now he’s crashing the lunch table Nick and his friends share. Nick’s best friend, the bowtie-wearing, nerdy Seth, never approved of Owen, but this year the animosity between them is even worse.
Nick is an engaging character, filled with optimism, with an amazing brain that often takes over. He’s got plenty of vulnerabilities, and squad of great friends; Lola Gibson, who goes by Gibby, who has shaved her head and calls herself a black butch; Jazz, the rich-girl, cheerleader girlfriend of Gibby, and of course Seth, Nick’s closest friend since kindergarten. Seth’s parents were killed in a train derailment when he was a baby, so he of all of them understands what Nick is going through grieving his mother. Owen’s flirty intrusion into this group, his habit of cadging food, and his increasingly unsubtle hints and double entendres grow more sinister. Things get even weirder when Nick finally meets his idol, as Shadow Star saves him and Gibby from a mugging.
Nick’s infatuation grows, and his relationship with his dad is getting more problematic. Aaron Bell loves his son and is protective of him, and possibly doesn’t understand that Nick is just as protective of him. Nick’s ADHD is a struggle for Aaron. Nick’s school behavior wobbles, and when an exhausted, frustrated Aaron makes a cruel remark about Nick’s brain, Nick embarks on a downward spiral of Very Bad Choices. At first, they are comic, as Nick decides he will become an Extraordinary himself by a) getting bitten by a spider he’s nuked in the microwave, or b) briefly exposing himself to radiation from a nuclear power plant. His friends manage to talk to him down in both cases, but he continues to plan. More seriously, Seth is absent more and more, and Seth is Nick’s anchor. This section of the book manages to be hilarious and frightening, and Nick’s final attempt is life-threatening.
In the end, secret identities are revealed, people get hurt, vulnerabilities are exposed, and true love shines.
Nick might seem like a slow study, but as one character says, one of his endearing traits is his complete cluelessness. The end of the book is solid, but this is not the end of the story, because the Extraordinaries is the first book of a series.
This is YA, so the jokes were repeated too often for me, and some scenes ran on too long, although I think teen readers will love them. The characters of Seth, Gibby and Jazz are funny, smart, caring and snarky, and Klune still managed to surprise me about them, more than once. The relationship between Aaron and Nick is fraught, the most compelling thing in the book to me. Yes, there is one dead parent, but Klune breaks the annoying YA trope of checked out/absent adult. Nick’s dad cares, and he’s effective… but it’s hard to prevail against people who can fly, strangle you with shadows, or manifest fire.
Nick and his friends are strong and loyal, and that is mainly what the book is about; that and gently poking at superhero origin stories, exploring first love, and letting us see the inside of Nick’s mind. Nick’s ADHD makes him a handful—although that’s not the only thing that does– but what his brain can do is amazing. Klune took care to make this real; it’s Nick’s power (if not a superpower) and often it’s an obstacle in a school and society that seems unable to adjust to the fact that some people’s brains work differently.
As soon as I finished The Extraordinaries I ordered the sequel, Flash Fire. Flash Fire is the reason The Extraordinaries only takes the silver medal in the YA/Superhero origin story/coming of age/ Spiderman movie parody/neurodivergent/queer rom-com event. Still, it holds an important place in the pantheon, because it’s where the whole thing starts.