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'A Hundred Thousand Worlds' Might Be A Few Too Many

"Stories can be true even if they're not real," muses nine-year-old Alex Torrey. His whole life has been steeped in stories: His parents were the stars of a cult favorite science fiction television show, Anomaly, and both have continued their acting careers somewhat successfully. Alex is a budding writer and voracious reader, devouring each installment of a Harry Potter-like young adult book series.

It doesn't take long for readers of Bob Proehl's novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds to discover that Alex has been, in a way, living in a world of fiction for most of his life. He knows that his mother, Valerie, is taking him on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles to reunite with his estranged father. But he doesn't know that the visit will last longer than he imagined, due to a secret Valerie's been keeping from him for years.

Alex and Valerie's road trip, punctuated by stops at comic book conventions, where Valerie is in high demand, is the main thread in a novel that — for better and for worse — has quite a few of them. A Hundred Thousand Worlds is a charming, sprawling novel by an author whose ambition, while laudable, sometimes gets the best of him.

As the two travelers go their way from one ocean to the other, they befriend a handful of people who are also on the convention circuit. There's Brett, a sweet indie comic book artist whose collaboration with his best friend causes him more than a few headaches. There's Gail, the founder of "a feminist and sometimes misandrist website called" — she's since ditched blogging for a job writing for a major comic book publisher.

And then there's a group of women cosplayers, paid by convention organizers to dress up as popular comic book heroes and roam the convention halls. Their main function in the novel is to provide a kind of running commentary about the comic book industry; besides their (sometimes funny) quips, it's not entirely clear what they're doing in the book.

'A Hundred Thousand Worlds' is messy at times, but it's not without its charms.

There are some things that Proehl does well in A Hundred Thousand Worlds. First of all, he's a talented and earnest writer who never condescends to his characters. While Valerie doesn't completely understand the devotion fans had for her show, she's encouraged by the purity of their fandom: "It's something she likes quite a bit about this little world: the capability of those within it to get deeply and sincerely excited about things. She wonders how they fare in the real world, where excitement is poorly valued, and she tries to think of things she has been excited about. There are so few."

Proehl's best accomplishment in the book, though, is the very realistic, and very sweet, relationship between Valerie and Alex, "this lifesaver, this impossible child." Alex is precocious, but he never acts like anything other than a nine-year-old, and his observations manage to be both childlike and wise: "There are practically no other kids [at the comic book convention], which is stupid, because there's so much stuff for kids here."

But the novel is, unfortunately, way too busy, and the other characters aren't as well-realized as Valerie and Alex. Brett exists in the book chiefly to be a foil for Alex, who's taken a shine to the mopey artist. And Gail comes off as a stand-in, inserted into the novel to rail against the problems of the comic book industry: discrimination against (and objectification of) women, homophobia, the unchecked use of sexual assault as a plot device in comic books.

Those are, of course, real problems in the comic book industry (and so many other ones, too), and it's refreshing to see a writer aware of them. But it's awkwardly shoehorned in, and it's a distraction from the main story. This is a common problem with debut novelists — they frequently have the urge to incorporate every idea they've ever had into their first book.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds is messy at times, but it's not without its charms, and Proehl's wit and insight make it very likely he'll write a great novel some day. And writing a novel is a lot harder than it looks, of course — as Gail puts it: "It's tougher when you're moving things to an ending. Beginnings are so much simpler — everything can sprawl out. But endings have to winnow to a point, and it's easier to trip and stumble into it than to smoothly spiral downward."

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.