“The Spec Set” is a little piece of neurodivergent lit that is part superhero adventure, part spy thriller, part alien encounter, and sprinkled with a healthy dose of coming-of-age drama for our MC, Emile. Emile has always taken care of his little brother Max; making sure he gets around, that he’s safe, that he has what he needs. But Emile knows that Max is brilliant, that he is capable of more, even though he doesn’t talk, if only their over protective father would stop coddling the kid. Then Max finds a therapist whose young daughter (Lily) not only helps Max, but introduces Emile to a whole new world, one where he can play a part—as long as he, too, can see his little brother for who, and what, he truly is. I really loved the narrative voice of this novel from the onset, it’s fun and just my kind of sarcastic. I also really loved how Emile views Max early on; as someone with a neurodivergent brother, I related to being a sibling’s keeper, and feeling like they were playing the system more than necessary. But there was also a lot happening in this short read, and I often felt like chunks were missing from the story.
I liked that the author made it so neurodivergent characters had powers of sorts, and I thought there was a lot of fun creativity that went into their abilities, it reminded me of the X-Men and those just happen to be my favorite comics. I also liked the stories overall premise: a set of chemicals have been stolen which, while bad on earth, turn out to be even worse when the culprit flees through a portal to another world. I also really liked the authenticity of Emile, where he is often frustrated with Max but that never stopped him from doing what his brother wanted, from helping him, and going along with Max and Lily even when he didn’t want to. But the other characters often belittled Emile for that. They treated him like he was… dense I guess is the best way to describe it. And even though Max and Lily had good intentions, I just could never like them much because they never seemed to like Emile all that much in turn. Which, unfortunately, those two characters set the tone for the others in the Spec Set and how they viewed Emile as well. So, needless to say, I had a hard time connecting to the large cast of characters, and never really felt like I got to know any one of them that well.
But when you have a story with so many different parts, it can be hard to give each part it’s due. The family relationship with Emile, his dad, and Max is strained, but never gets much of a focus or resolution. The earth case of the missing chemicals felt swept aside in order to focus on going through the portal which is, admittedly, more exciting but it was a loose end that just got glossed over really quickly. The twist with the new world is really cool! But not enough time is spent there either to where when, the book ends, I felt like they accomplished their original mission, as it got pushed aside for an intense gladiatorial-type battle. I also was a little irked that going to this new planet “fixed” Max. It was a conflicting message that maybe I didn’t entirely get because there was so much else going on. But that’s what I mean by it felt like large chunks of the book was missing. That may be by design because the story is told in Emile’s POV and maybe certain aspects bored him, or he felt like he couldn’t share because of agency secrets, but it mostly left me confused.
Overall, this story has an amazing concept, one that is a thrilling ride, but suffers from a lack of adequate world and character building. The bones are all there, and they are all solid and good, but it needed a bit more fleshing out to really set the scene and immerse me in this creative world. This book has some really fun X-Men vibes, so if that’s your jam, and you’re looking for a fast-paced alien espionage type adventure, you may enjoy this YA sci-fi more than I did. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it, but it had such a strong start that the rest of the book struggled to live up to, in my opinion, which is why I am giving this 3 stars. But thanks to the author for sending me a copy for an honest review!
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