Proxies of Fate marks the first time I’ve been asked to review a purely prose novel, yet while Proxies isn’t a comic as such it’s ostensibly a classic comic book adventure under a literary veil, with equal quantities of 50s sci-fi thrown in for good measure.
When an invasion by the Krush, a sadistic reptilian warrior race intent on conquering Earth, is impeded by Pol, the last of the benevolent Theria, the two races agree to a war by proxy in which two humans will be genetically modified to battle for the fate of mankind. During the Great Depression, disillusioned war veteran Chris Donner receives the Theria’s holy abilities, while in China romantic peasant Li Chen becomes the monstrous Dragon King and is embroiled in his nation’s battle against its Japanese oppressors.
What really makes Proxies of Fate such an engrossing read is the level of research Matthew Moses has clearly put into his second novel. The 1930s setting is often as dominant a character as the book’s two genetically enhanced superhumans, and Moses binds his seemingly dichotic influences into something truly interesting. Rather than focusing on such familiar territory as WWII, Pearl Harbour or the Nazis, Proxies sheds light on two disparate backdrops that are seldom utilised in science fiction, and the result is a novel that feels both familiar and fresh.
The blend of plausible alternate history and practically antique comic book plot elements – the frequent interludes of Krush overlord Akkad watching events from afar are cheesy enough to make Ming the Merciless go green(er) with envy – may not sound like it works, but it does, as Moses’ central superpowers are deep enough to carry this juxtaposition between political gravitas and Golden Age super-heroics.
Theria’s champion Chris Donner is a loser who is reluctant to put his gift to public use, while Krush pawn Li Chen is a sympathetic young idealist whose rampage against the Japanese military is at first entirely justifiable. Other characters such as a compassionate journalist and an ensemble of Chinese diplomats are all recognisable archetypes, but are given enough depth that their own struggles are just as important as Donner’s.
Conversely, if there’s one small thing letting Proxies of Fate down it’s that we know that Donner and Li Chen’s predestined face-off is going to happen, and at times it does feel as though they are both being too conveniently guided towards their fates. Li Chen in particular is practically shoved into the final battle; Moses spends a good 150 pages developing Chen from a wide-eyed dreamer into a tragic victim and eventually a reluctant hero, only to devolve the character into a mindless monster over several pages.
But criticising Proxies of Fate for delivering what most readers will want is perhaps a little trivial – and although Moses adheres rigidly to superhero conventions, the quality of his writing and the evident extent of his research into 1930s history shine through on every page. Several developments in the book’s final pages were genuinely unexpected, and memorably epitomised the book’s admirably optimistic outlook.
Matthew Moses fills Proxies of Fate with an abundance of interesting characters, epic historical events, science fiction allegories and memorable action scenes, but this novel is ultimately an intimate story, its superhero antics driven by believable protagonists with human hearts. It’s also a far better book than any comic franchise cash-in novel, or indeed any comparable superhero novel you’re likely to read.
Proxies of Fate is published by Pill Hill Press, and is available from Amazon for $15.99. 362 pages.