Saturday, June 25, 2016

Book Review: "A Hundred Thousand Worlds" by Bob Proehl

Despite the fact that it's less than 400 pages long, and other than flashbacks takes place over the course of a few days, the first word that comes to mind to describe Bob Proehl's A Hundred Thousand Worlds—other than the superlatives I'll use later—is "sprawling." This feels like a big novel, but while its cast of characters is a bit large, there are times when it feels very intimate, as it explores the dynamics of relationships, particularly between mother and child.

"Everything changes, all the time. Even if you tried not to change, things would change around you till you'd have to. It's like you're a story, not a picture."

Valerie Torrey starred for several years in a popular time travel-themed television show, Anomaly. As often happens in the entertainment world, she and her costar, Andrew Rhodes, became romantically involved around the same time their characters did. Valerie became pregnant and the two got married. But while the show continued, their relationship became strained because of the pressures of parenthood. When a shocking event occurs, it signifies the end of the show and the end of their marriage. Valerie takes their young son to New York, where she ekes out a living as a semi-successful theater actress and homeschools Alex.

A few years later, Valerie agrees to a series of comic-cons, as her character and Anomaly are still popular with this audience. They plan to end up in California, where Alex will be reunited with his father, whom he's only seen on television in his new Californication-type series. But the reunion isn't going to be what Alex expects, and this takes a toll on both mother and child as they make their journey from convention to convention.

Along the way, they meet a group of comic book writers and illustrators, and we get glimpses of that world as well, from a talented illustrator who builds a rapport with Alex, to one of only a few female comic writers, who struggles with being taken seriously despite her copious talent. Alex and Val also encounter a group of women who dress as female comic book characters, and act as a Greek chorus of sorts.

This is a book about relationships—between friends and colleagues, between lovers past and present, and between parent and child. It's also a book about the blurry yet magical line between fact and fiction, and the power of storytelling. This is totally fitting since Proehl's storytelling ability is dazzling. The cast of characters is fascinating, complex, flawed, and utterly gripping, and although you know where much of the story will go, you savor the journey.

This book isn't perfect; when it touches on the backstories of different comic book characters you've never heard of it loses its way, but only briefly. I loved the book most when all of the characters were interacting, or when the focus was simply on Alex and Val—I liked the other characters but wanted more of the story's core. But this book had so much heart, and so much beauty, that I can't get it out of my mind, and I was sad when I finished.

If you're not a comic book fan, don't let that dissuade you from reading this book. This is a story more about people than comics. It's just so richly satisfying, and lovely.

NetGalley and Penguin Group Viking provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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