The Spec Set by Taya Okerlund

Emile and his little brother Max go to science camp. Well, Max really wants to go, so Emile just decides to tag along. While they’re there, however, a dangerous combination of chemicals are stolen, and the FBI get involved. Emile soon befriends Lilly, who has more than a few secrets about her, including some supernatural powers — along with a few super-powered friends known as the spec set. Oh, and she also has ties with the CIA. With the FBI thinking Max is behind the theft, things are looking grim. Emile and the spec set must prove Max’s innocence while also finding out who stole the chemicals.

The Spec Set is one of those books that does many things right. For example, there is strong neurodiversity (and just diversity in general) represented. While not directly stated, Max is heavily implied to have autism. The author shares that her family has a history of neurodivergence, including a daughter with autism. She wrote this book to celebrate neurodiversity. And it’s basically outright stated that everyone in the spec set has some sort of neurodivergence.

Another thing I think is excellent is the dialogue. It felt real and genuine. Emile’s interactions with Max and Lilly, through their dialogue, were great to read. We really get a sense of who they are. At one point, we go to an alternate world where Max can finally speak his mind, no longer held back by the fog of where he came from. Without getting into spoilers, we learn so much about Max through his dialogue in the alternate world. He has a quiet strength that accumulates throughout the novel. While the POV is from Emile’s perspective, Max is the true star of the novel.

But while there were a lot of great things, I also found there to be some more mediocre aspects. Namely, the worldbuilding felt lackluster. The alt world did feel somewhat alive, but we never really got a sense of it all. At least to me, it seemed like a set of disjointed sets rather than a full world. Just subway station and interrogation room. I was also a bit disappointed in a lot of the scenes that completely skipped over stuff (e.g., them making plans or even what certain places looked like). The book’s excuse was that it was confidential information, but it honestly gave a bit of a lazy aspect to the writing that was otherwise pretty good.

I also was not a fan of Emile and Lilly’s relationship. We see that the two of them like each other throughout the novel. But there’s no chemistry in my opinion. It feels forced, really.

Overall, I found this book to be alright. The good was really good and strong—including a great, diverse cast and some good dialogue. Unfortunately, the mediocre parts just brought the novel down for me. Would I still recommend it? Yes. At the very least, I’d say to give it a chance. It’s an exciting book unlike any I’ve ever read before. Neurodivergent superheroes. What a ride!

(We were kindly sent an e-ARC by the author for review.)

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