Fight Me by Austin Grossman (book review).

Super-hero novels are a bit of an oddity to me because I grew up reading about such characters in comic book form and then learned to like them in movies. Text, not a visual medium, is unusual, but if you’re a novelist who loves super-heroes, then that’s the way to go. Austin Grossman, a Harvard graduate from an intellectual family, loves superheroes, and this is his take on the genre.

The novel’s alternative world, akin to the Marvel Universe, is our own, except for their metahuman presence. When we met him in 2015, the hero and first-person narrator was Alex Beekman, retired and anonymous as mild-mannered English professor Rick Tower. Alex, a prodigy, was a member of the famous super-hero group The Newcomers back in the 1990s. His colleagues were Jack, one of the smartest men in the world (Doctor Optimal), Stephanie, a princess from the enchanted kingdom of Summerdwell (Glamour), and Cat, a bio-engineered super soldier (Adept). Prodigy’s mentor has mysteriously disappeared after they retired for a while, compelling him to reunite with his old colleagues for a final mission.

The novel alternates between the present-day events of 2015 and the historical events of the 1990s, during which a top-secret institution trained and tested the four teenage Newcomers. The prodigy is easily the most powerful, at least physically. He gained his abilities when a wizard posing as a schoolteacher took him to a hidden cave, gave him the amulet, and assured him he had a destiny to fight evil. Ordinary Alex Beekman transforms into a superman with bulging muscles, invulnerability, and super-strength when he touches the magic amulet and says ‘Raelcun’. His weakness is that certain speedy metahumans might separate him from the amulet before he can say the magic word.

Alex is a nice guy—maybe too nice—and easily the most normal of the team. Cat has endured significant hardships at the hands of the malevolent corporation responsible for her creation, leading her to become somewhat cynical. Jack is extremely intelligent and adept at manipulating interactions, allowing him to stay one step ahead of everyone else. Stephanie, a haughty and beautiful princess, is furious that her sister Juniper has usurped her birthright, the throne of Summerdwell. Bickering teammates are a staple of the super-hero genre, but the author shows us four unique characters with different ideas, principles, and ambitions and makes their differences an inevitable product of that, not just something tacked on. Austin Grossman obviously loves the whole setup, and there are many familiar scenes and several incidents that will make you laugh out loud, especially in the first half of the book.

Comic books randomly combine elements of science fiction and fantasy. In prose, the two genres tend to be more distinct. In general, you don’t expect to find androids in medieval fantasy epics or wizards in dystopian futures. Gandalf doesn’t fight robots, and starship troopers don’t have trouble with elves, but in comics, wizards battle happily alongside iron men.

A time machine everyone wants is at the heart of the 2015 story. Who wouldn’t? It belongs to the arch-villain Sinistro, the deposed emperor of Earth in the 30th century, an evil, charming genius the Newcomers fought often and barely defeated each time. The difference between heroes and villains is not as stark in the grey morals of the modern world, and some with superpowers might as easily become one as the other. Some even change. Essentially, villains typically aim to amass wealth and prioritize their own interests, a perspective that makes sense unless they are naive idealists. Heroes risk their lives to protect an often ungrateful public, and they can become disillusioned. The biggest villains want to rule the world, but why?

I really enjoyed ‘Fight Me’ but I found the skipping back and forth between past and present mildly confusing. This overuse of flashbacks has become standard in TV dramas now, and I suspect it’s a technique to make a weak story more gripping. Not the case here, I hasten to add! I enjoyed the past story more. How the Newcomers met, trained, and became a team is a gripping, often funny tale with an unusual twist. When they’re older, wiser, and rather unhappy, it’s not the same, but that’s life.

Overall, though, this is terrific. The joy of being a superhero is evident, particularly in Prodigy. I would dearly love to see this adapted to the graphic novel form, but I highly recommend the text version in the meantime.

Eamonn Murphy

May 2024

(pub: Michael Joseph/Penguin. 416 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-24155-594-1)

check out website: www.penguin.co.uk/books/446205/fight-me-by-grossman-austin/9780241555941

Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories now and then. Website: https://eamonnmurphywriter298729969.wordpress.com/

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