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The Nobody People
by Bob Proehl
Del Rey, $27.00, 475pp
Published: September 2019

My last experience with Proehl was a very low-key but emotionally satisfying little story.  This one is a bit more ambitious but still with his now signature low-key approach.  This is a superhero story but unlike anything else I’ve read, and I’ve read just about all of them.

This story examines what it might really be like to suddenly discover one has abilities.  Just about every other superhero story focuses on the drama and romance of having the power to do something no one else can.  And from there generally develops into a mystery with plenty of angst.  This one is not that kind of fun, it’s a little dry but probably more realistic than the others.

Avi is an investigative reporter looking into a church bombing but when he sees the video of the young man who blows up the church, he realizes that it isn’t anything normal.  His search for the mysterious man draws the attention of a shadowy group of people with their own abilities; and they are also hunting the human bomb.  They recognize the young man as one of their own and intend to protect both him and the society he threatens.  They enlist Avi to write a story about them…to “out” them to the world with human interest pieces.  There’s a school in Manhattan where children with abilities are protected and taught to control their gifts. (sound familiar?)  The head master, Bishop, appears to be the oldest of them all and he’s been gathering up the damaged, rejected children for a long time.  He’s pretty sure that Avi is the one they need to head their press campaign to present a benign, hopeful image to the world; after all, Avi has always known his own daughter was special… They style themselves Resonants.

Unfortunately, for every positive spin that Avi employs, there’s another story in the press with a negative side.  Sometimes the person with abilities survives an encounter with Damps, their term for non-Resonants, but more often they do not.  And the press delights in vilifying them. The young man who is a living bomb is of particular interest to the FBI, and, by extension, the military complex. The FBI learns that he is being incarcerated at the school and they try different tactics to find him.  What they don’t know is that Bishop lost him; someone unknown is helping the young man and there are hints that this unknown person is manipulating them all.  Bishop and his staff are desperate to find a peaceful solution to the escalating war; a way to save all their people, keep down the casualties and not end up in an “internment camp”.  Their people are being snatched up off the street and from their homes and disappearing, much like other historical events have depicted.  One of their own may have given the authorities the information on how to safely incarcerate them.  And at the center of it all is Avi’s daughter, Emmeline, whose power appears to dwarf all others.

What I found most compelling was how the author illustrated the confusion at a very personal level when these children and their families try to deal with the situation. With no historical precedent, ordinary people are at a loss as to know how to deal with a child who bursts into flame or reads their minds.  Fear and rejection are typified responses.  And outside of the family is the community – which easily turns into a self-justified lynch mob.  There are no colorful costumes, no hero headquarters.  These kids are just trying to survive, both themselves and the outside world.  No one has time to stop runaway trains or catch falling aircraft. And even if they did, I suspect the author is right in that it wouldn’t inspire awe or hero-worship. If anything, it would ramp up fear.

The characters are interesting although a bit distanced from the reader; we aren’t really drawn into any of them.  There isn’t any world building to speak of.  It’s all plot-driven.  There are multiple people and events that pull together at the end, but not very effectively.  Much is left unexplained; and I’m sure that is intended.  After all, just being born with abilities doesn’t bring with it a complete backstory.  There is a hint that the appearance of these children might be by design but we get nothing more from that trail.  The climatic showdown between the Resonants and the authorities didn’t feel very urgent; despite the violence I didn’t feel any tension from the story.  And I was really unsatisfied with the ending.  It both felt like another story should be coming but it also felt like the author just gave up.   ~~ Catherine Book

For other titles by Bob Proehl click here

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