Cara reviews Dynama by Ruth Diaz

 

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Dynama deftly juxtaposes superpowers around the main romance and both good and bad family relationships. The characterization and dialog make the story, and while not without weaknesses, it offers a satisfying arc despite its novella length.

The first scene introduces TJ Gutierrez using her telekinetic powers to help take down a cyborg shark as she learns that her daughter is coming down with the flu at school and that her ex-husband Jon has just broken out of supervillain prison. She immediately suspects he’s going to try to kidnap their twins, Marisol and Esteban. The second scene introduces Annmarie, the daughter of two superheroes who has no powers herself. Unable to find a job as a teacher, she takes a job with the superheroes’ literal union as a nanny, and TJ hires her to help take care of the kids while TJ hunts for Jon. Diaz sets up the main conflict and introduces the two protagonists all in the first chapter, putting to shame novels that accomplish half as much in twice the length. Of course, the two women are attracted to each other immediately and start to develop a relationship even as Jon closes in and things get dangerous.

Diaz’s writing shines in the little details and the conversations that establish understanding or lack of understanding. There are so many of these I can’t include them all in a review, but I’ll give some of my favorites.

Annmarie… found TJ rocking a little girl against her chest and crooning quietly while an unpleasant mass of vomit hovered nearby in midair. As Annmarie watched, a large plastic bowl levitated itself under the vomit, which then fell into it.

That might just be the most amazing superpower she’d ever seen.

When TJ is thinking about her ex:

God, she still remembered her last argument with Jon, that gentlemen were the ones who sat back with their brandies and their cigars and ordered other people to do their murders for them. He hadn’t even tried to tell her it wasn’t like that—he was too far gone. He’d pointed out that, from a historical point of view, a few well-placed assassinations could have saved the world a whole lot of bloodshed.

I particularly liked Diaz’s handling of the two kids, who sounded and acted like real seven-year-olds, without making them little adults or treating them like nonentities. When Annamarie first shows up, Esteban asks if she’s the babysitter and observes, Oh good … When Mama starts floating things, she needs help. Later, when one of TJ’s friends tries to evade one of Esteban’s questions:

The Invincible Woman looked caught out, no matter how she tried to hide it. Friends of your mama.

God, Annmarie remembered explanations like that from when she was growing up—the kind that didn’t lie, but talked down to her in trying not to tell all of the truth. She remembered Esteban’s expression too. From the inside. Before he could answer, Annmarie said, You know how careful superheroes have to be about who knows they’re really superheroes, right?

That caught Marisol’s attention too. As Esteban nodded, she asked, They were other superheroes? How come she didn’t tell us?

Moments like these capture TJ’s incomprehension of how Jon changed so much, Annmarie’s resentment of her distant parents and by extension the superhero community, their shared values like their joint devotion to the twins, and their differences, best captured when TJ asks Annmarie what she wants: I don’t want to save the world. Her voice broke a little, and she focused on TJ again. I just want to save you. They give the characters real emotional depth, particularly because Diaz doesn’t shy away from experiences like TJ’s terror when Jon puts their children in serious danger while trying to kidnap them from her. I also appreciate how matter-of-factly Annmarie takes TJ’s bisexuality and likewise everyone else treats their relationship at the end.

I have only two major complaints, about the setting and the pacing. While Diaz deemphasizes the worst of the superhero genre conventions and averts others by making clear the superheroes have government sanction and are not just superpowered vigilantes, she places the events in a nonexistent city without giving us a clear sense of its geography or climate. The pallor of the setting stands in stark contrast to the well-drawn characters. The pacing suffers from cramming two main plots into one novella, and inevitably some elements get short shrift. TJ’s and Annmarie’s relationship moves fast, though I’ve seen romance novels build less connection in more words and there are no promises of everlasting love, just a mutual agreement they want to keep seeing each other and explore their feelings. That said, I would have liked to see more of the potential conflicts developed, like Annmarie’s reluctance to become involved with a superhero because of her parents and past experiences with being treated like she doesn’t matter because she doesn’t have powers, and (spoilers) [Annmarie’s relationship with her parents now that she has powers and how TJ feels about Annmarie not wanting to be a superhero even though TJ thinks the world needs more.]

Even with its flaws, though, Dynama succeeds as both a romance and superhero story. If you enjoy both, I recommend it.

Cara reviews Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

not your sidekick

The premise of Not Your Sidekick has promise that the execution, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to. The best part of the book is the characterization of the protagonist and her love interest, but everything else falls short.

The book opens as Jess, the protagonist and first-person narrator, tests herself for superpowers in the desert near her home, then follows her home and into school to exposit the setting and to establish her relationships with her family and her two best friends. The biggest problem with this opening is that it’s boring, and to be honest, I almost gave up on the book altogether before I hit the key event that sets off the plot, midway through Chapter 3.

The relationships are boring because they’re stereotypical. Her parents are superheroes, but in other respects they’re East Asian parents who expect Jess to do well in school. She has an older sister, Claudia, who has superpowers stronger than their parents and whom Jess idolizes. She has an annoying younger brother who’s an engineering prodigy. We’re made to understand that Jess feels like the black sheep of her family, but there’s no emotional depth to it, no strong resentment, ambition, rebelliousness, alienation, or anything else you’d expect in someone who feels like a disappointment to her parents and inferior to her siblings. Likewise, her friendships feel superficial. We never learn why she’s friends with Bells or Emma or any of the emotional history that presumably binds them together. Unfortunately, this lack of emotional impact never gets better.

The world building could have saved the opening, but it’s boring too. The US, we learn, has been absorbed into the “North American Collective” and Vietnam into the “Southeast Asian Alliance.” This is unlikely at best, because countries are durable. The US has survived for 250 years, including two world wars and a civil war. Vietnam has existed in some form since around 938 CE, despite being conquered by China and France and fighting a bloody war against the US. When countries do change, it’s more common for them to fragment rather than combine. The enormous difficulty that the European Union has had in achieving even the limited amount of agreement it has and the disintegration of the Soviet Union after 1991 are instructive examples. How did these massive upheavals happen? Meanwhile, we also find out World War III took place, but nothing about who fought it, what started it, how was it fought, or who won, if anyone. Even though Jess and the other characters were born long after the war, even sixty years after World War II ended, references to specifics about it (Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pearl Harbor—these are are examples for the US, other countries have different common knowledge) are ubiquitous, even if often biased toward a particular nationalistic perspective on the conflict. The rest of the world building isn’t much better, and the lack of depth in politics and history weakens the rest of the story as well.

The best part is the midsection, which is focused on Jess’s job and her developing relationship with Abby. Jess shows more emotion here, and we learn more about how she feels about the people in her life, including her cute crush on Abby. Their interactions alternate between sweet and amusing, and I will never get tired of romances between women where homophobia plays no role at all. If the whole book had been this, it would have worked much better.

Two revelations in the midsection, that Abby is M and that Bells is Kid Chameleon were so obvious to me that it makes Jess seem dense. Maybe Lee is thinking that teenaged readers won’t make those connections as fast, but even when I was a teenager, I saw through such transparent attempts at concealment, so I’m skeptical.

The last part of the book, starting around Chapter 9, is less boring than the opening but no less problematic.

 

Spoilers

Some of the writing falls short. When we could have a climactic fight between Miss Mischief and Orion, instead we get, Mischief is brutal. She fights ruthlessly with Orion, whose superstrength damages the walls, and the entire house shakes with their battle, which is telling rather than showing if I’ve ever seen it. In an earlier fight, Claudia injects an unrestrained Abby with a syringe, even though stabbing someone, much less getting the fluid into them, is extremely difficult if they’re not cooperative and not strapped down.

These deficiencies aren’t the worst of it, though. We learn that all the heroes and villains are involved in a conspiracy where none of the fights are real, the heroes are in league with the North American Collective’s government, and the government is also intervening in foreign wars. I wasn’t surprised because, since there are no mentions of elections or other democratic systems, I’d already assumed that the North American Collective was authoritarian. Meanwhile, it’s also now imprisoning and experimenting on the villains and trying to use MonRobots for surveillance and assassination. I think Lee is trying to justify the superhero convention where conflicts between superheroes and villains don’t result in death, but none of the logic fits together here. Jess and her friends might be excused for not knowing they live under an autocratic government because they’re teenagers, but the adults would know. When villains started disappearing, the other villains would draw the obvious conclusion and the implicit bargain that keeps the conspiracy functioning would break down. Why were the other villains so passive, leaving Abby to do something? Meanwhile, even though Abby’s attempt to reveal the conspiracy becomes a major plot point, we don’t learn anything about the government, who has the power, or how it maintains control over everyone else. The heroes’ powers are not strong enough to defeat 21st-century level military technology much less 22nd-level technology, so if they’re running the government, how do they keep control? Who runs the military and the police, and why are they loyal to the heroes or whoever’s actually in charge?

Another major problem is that as the story veers into prison, human experimentation, torture, and autocratic government, the tone never changes to reflect how serious this is. Claudia depowers Abby, but how Abby feels about this is never addressed. For someone who’s had her powers for years, if not as long as she can remember, losing them would be like losing her sight or a limb. I think Lee means to convey that powers aren’t what gives a person moral value, which is true but irrelevant to what it would feel like for Abby to lose her powers. Adapting to a major disability is not easy and takes time. Claudia tells Jess, Your own person? You’re nothing but a byproduct of an experiment! … Maybe you should ask our parents what they’ve been keeping from you. I mean, they didn’t seem surprised at all when you didn’t get any powers, did they? Like they knew you wouldn’t?, but Jess never asks her parents about this, never even decides that Claudia is lying or think to herself that she doesn’t want to know the truth or any other reaction. Jess rejects Claudia’s offer to be her sidekick, but doesn’t feel anything else toward her, not even after Claudia maims Abby’s powers. Likewise, at the end of the story everything goes back to normal, even though Orion knows they broke Miss Michief out of prison and stole information from her DED. None of the adults or the teenagers express fear that the government is going to kill them or lock them up, frustration that they can’t reveal the government’s lies because they don’t have Abby’s powers, betrayal at the lies they’ve learned about, or anything else.

Along with this lack of seriousness is out-of-place humor. Orion never remembers Claudia’s name, and while Lee obviously wants this to show how little regard Orion has for Claudia, it comes off as silly and jarring in context. Orion and Claudia are such one-note villains that it’s impossible to take them seriously. Orion is a stereotype of a clueless, privileged white person, and the only motivation Claudia ever displays is a desire for power. They don’t carry the either side of the conflict.

 

Ultimately, it was the dissonance between the plot and the emotional resonance that left me unsatisfied with Not Your Sidekick, and I don’t recommend it.

Cara reviews Ex-Wives of Dracula by Georgette Kaplan

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This is one of the best lesbian vampire books I’ve ever read. While not without its flaws, it stands out for the development of its two protagonists, its prose, its humor, and its well-developed setting.

Mindy and Lucia start off by rekindling their childhood friendship on Mindy’s pizza routes, in the easy way that friendships develop when you’re that age and don’t need to make plans to spend time with people. While the characters are in high school, though, Ex-Wives of Dracula doesn’t feel at all like a young-adult book, rather more like a classic bildungsroman, colored with an adult perspective on being young. Soon, Mindy confesses that she’s been questioning if she’s gay to Lucia. Mindy’s doubts feel real. To me it’s obvious she’s into girls, but it’s exactly the same way my sexuality was a riddle to my high-school self yet so obvious in hindsight. Then, Lucia breaks up with her boyfriend. Then, Lucia kisses Mindy. Then, she gets back together with her boyfriend. Then, she gets turned into a vampire.

Lucia’s hot-and-cold, off-and-on affections should be familiar to any queer woman who’s had her heart broken by a straight girl. Lucia’s not so straight, though, and the clues are there from the start.

“I really tried with him,” Lucia said. Her voice wasn’t rattling with
emotion any more, it was just quiet. Which was even worse. “I really
thought I was a good girlfriend. I was gonna—wash his clothes and fix
him pies and shit. I would’ve done anything to be a good girlfriend.”

“You were a great girlfriend,” Mindy assured her. “He’s just an
idiot. He’s an idiot who never even got to know you well enough to
know what he’s gonna be missing. He’s gonna be big and fat at the high
school reunion, and you’re going to be super-hot and married to a
senator. He won’t even know why he let you get away.”

“I did anal!” Lucia cried to the florescent lights. “What more is a
girl supposed to do, huh?”

We learn, though, that Lucia’s ambiguity has at least as much to do with her feeling inferior to Mindy—dumber and poorer—as it does with internalized homophobia. She hurts Mindy not because she’s deliberately toying with her, but because she doesn’t know how to deal with a relationship on top of her family’s dysfunction and her own uncertainties about her future.

Mindy works out much faster that she likes girls and is more together, but she’s flawed too. When Lucia confesses that the reason she doesn’t want to drink Mindy’s blood is because she’ll lose control, Mindy convinces her otherwise, then hypocritically blames Lucia when, later in the book, she does lose control. Mindy is also certain that Lucia is wrong about something that Lucia is right about, with tragic consequences for everyone involved.

The dialog is often hilarious, and moments of humor mark the rest of the book too. It veers from the absurd, like Lucia going through Mindy’s list of bad tippers to find people to feed on, to the silly, like when Mindy disinvites Lucia to pretend to be hitting her with a hadouken, to the dark: This is why communication is so important, she said to Lucia. Imagine, thinking I had something against murderous rampages… Kaplan uses the humor well to contrast the serious and sometimes horrific elements in the rest of the novel.

Kaplan writes a lot of great descriptions, and some of the best come in the horror scenes. When Lucia confronts the vampire the first time:

He pulled. She bit. The skin gave and his blood flooded her mouth. It
wasn’t warm, it wasn’t salty. It was cold and thick, knotted like old
cough syrup. She wouldn’t release her hold on him to spit it out. She
swallowed and felt it all the way down her esophagus, cold and
heavy. It sat in the pit of her stomach like she’d eaten dry ice.

When Lucia shows up at Mindy’s house afterward:

Out in the hallway, she gasped so hard she nearly dropped the
tray. The footprints Mindy had so assiduously cleaned up, with Swiffer
mops and Resolve Spot & Stain, were still there in ghostly
form. They’d metastasized into mushrooms with long, slender stalks and
caps the size of tennis balls, with small siblings alongside them. The
patches of fungus went up the stairs. One for each step Lucia had
taken.

One of my complaints about lesbian genre literature in general is that the prose is often not good, and I love to find novels that I enjoy reading just for the writing.

Her descriptions capture suburban Texas well, and the football-obsessed high school and town surrounding reminded me of the town I lived in in high school. [Spoilers next] The idea that one of those towns would welcome a vampire, as long as he was a good football coach, is scarily plausible to me. I also liked the way that Kaplan wove real-life life horror, an adult man who obsesses over a teenaged girl and interprets her actions as romantic love, into the character of the vampire; and that when Lucia revealed vampire existence to use it against the vampire who turned her, and the rest of the novel didn’t ignore this like it never happened.

One modern vampire trope in this novel that bugs me is vampires that can cross miles in seconds, with no mention of sonic booms or problems with ground shattering beneath their feet. (I think Twilight popularized this trope, but I don’t think it originated there.) Two other flaws are spoilers.

 

 

 

Spoilers

Seb starts off as comic relief, a FunnyForeigner from Romania. This is always a fraught trope, and I have mixed feelings about how Kaplan uses it here. Later, he’s arguably StuffedInTheFridge to make Mindy surrender herself to the vampire. The reason I say “arguably” is because, at least in my interpretation of the trope, one of its key properties is the lack of agency in the character’s death. Without this, it’s too easy to call every character death an example, because a death without any impact on any character isn’t going to have an impact on the reader, either. Seb puts himself in danger to save Mindy, so he has agency in his own death. Another point is that killing off a straight male character to motivate a not-straight female character doesn’t have the same baggage as the reverse. That said, this all is enough to trouble me, so I’d call it a flaw.

I also wish the ending had shown a little more of Mindy and Lucia’s future together, to indicate that maybe a two-vampire relationship would work out and that they could find some sort of happiness together. That is, however, a quibble. There’s not much more serious commitment than what Mindy does for Lucia, after all.