Shira Glassman reviews Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

not your sidekick

I’m surprised by how slowly the indie SFF world seems to be responding to fandom’s current preference for superheroes. Maybe that’s because superheroes originated in print to begin with, so anyone wanting to write them goes for graphic novels rather than prose. But CB Lee’s Not Your Sidekick is a much-needed contribution for those of us who for whatever reason just don’t tend to read comics very often and want superhero stories anyway.

When you read a book where the protagonist has both the same heritage and sexuality as the author (bisexual and mixed Chinese-Vietnamese), the whole thing shines with authenticity and verisimilitude. All the details that white cis/straight authors tend to shove in like political campaign fliers left wedged behind a doorknob are instead seamlessly woven into the text, as her default, whether they’re Vietnamese swear words, shame over how her former friends from Chinese school have become the “cool girls” and don’t talk to her anymore, or how she’s bi in the same awkward “I have crushes on the Talented Overachieving Femmes at my high school but I’m just gonna sit in a corner” way that I was at that age.
But the book isn’t about any of those things. It’s that kind of SFF so many people crave, where these marginalized kids get to battle evil forces and root out conspiracies as if–gasp–kids from marginalized cultures or sexualities have other enemies besides racism and queerphobia.
The book is really easy to read; CB Lee manages to explain a totally unfamiliar future following wars and radiation events without once losing me under a blanket of worldbuilding. Jess’s world of self-driving cars, electronic wrist devices, and three-dimensional holographic (I think) television seems completely normal and at times I almost felt like I was reading YA contemporary that happened to take place in a world with robots and superheroes, especially when she and the love interest, Abby, were flirting through school projects together.
But then the plot picks up, and the layers of twists begin to unpeel. There’s a really obvious twist that I saw coming because I have a similar one in my first book, but for me it almost served as camouflage and kept me from seeing all the other twists yet to come. For me, anyway, this didn’t turn out to be a predictable, simple book, and it had a lot of good things to say about the way we define heroes and villains in the public eye. Lee also came up with some pretty creative powers and super-identities that didn’t seem like the same old same old.
What I appreciated about the book is that even when things are Not Great, it never feels bogged down with that hopelessness and overwhelmingly dystopian feeling that it easily could have, given the subject matter. I mean, some people could plop you down as a reader in the middle of the desert in a future where there isn’t really enough good food to eat and various old forms of entertainment are forbidden, and it would seem depressing, but this just seems normal and even chirpy. I mean, it’s Jess’s normal. She just thinks she’s a regular kid, with a friend group and kids at school she feels weird around and homework and insecurities and crushes both on classmates and celebrities.
The ending isn’t really an ending at all, which is frustrating, but at least it’s not a cliffhanger, just the first book in the kind of trilogy where all three books tell one complete story. And yes, the girls end up together and alive. Behold the low bar television has set for SFF–the bar is on the ground. But this is, happily, more than just a book where Girl A gets with Girl B and fight some bad guys.

More of Shira Glassman’s reviews here.

Shira’s fluffy f/f fantasy series about a lesbian queen with a bi partner and a warrior/wizard sidekick couple here.

Aoife reviews Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

not your sidekick

Jessica Tran is almost seventeen, bisexual, Vietnamese-American, a ‘high school nobody’, average student – and haver of no superpowers. Not that she hasn’t tried. Her sister does, is off somewhere being a journalist slash super hero, and her brother is at least a science genius. But what does Jess have? Well, hopefully, an internship.

The best way I can describe Sidekick is as something of a cross between Strong Female Protagonist and Always Human, while still doing its own thing. Set in the future, the Sidekick world was devastated in the early 2000s by something to do with solar flares, which caused a bunch of natural disasters and a war, and also gave a number of people across the world meta-abilities, or superpowers. Her parents, who met in a refugee camp, were two of those people, and now divide their time between their cover lives – real estate – and their jobs as Shockwave and Smasher, the C-class superheroes of Andover, Nevada. The world itself is run under a bunch of kind of capitalist collectivist dictatorships; North America is now the North American Collective, where all media prior to 2035 is banned, there’s some other shifty stuff going on, and absolutely no one seems to think there’s a problem with the government. The American high school seems unchanged, though, so I guess that’s something. Probably not a point in their favour.

This book isn’t perfect, but I loved it. It’s never explicitly said, but there’s a lot of textual evidence to say that Jess has ADHD, which is exciting, and in addition to our excellent bisexual protagonist, we have a trans best friend (Bells) who is tragically in love with the other best friend (Emma), and a very lovely romantic lead (Abby). Also, Bells is Creole-American and Emma is Mexican-American; I think the only white main character is Abby? Pretty damn cool. I also liked the exploration of Jess’s – I guess race anxiety? She’s Vietnamese, and she feels Vietnamese, but not Vietnamese enough for other Vietnamese people. It made her feel more real, somehow.

The plot is pretty obvious – I figured out the majority of the ‘big reveals’ and plot points halfway through chapter two, and the others were also not particularly surprising – and the villainous characters are incredibly two-dimensional, to the point where I wonder if Lee did that on purpose. However! while it would have been nice if everyone was a little more perceptive, I loved this book. I loved the romance, I loved the characters, the writing is good, I’m super excited to read the next book… it definitely deserves its five stars. Lee does relationships really well, and she was so good at writing Jess being in love with Abby that I’m pretty sure I’m also in love with Abby now. 

Like SFP, there are a lot of really interesting implications within the world building that Sidekick barely scratched the surface of, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where Lee goes with it. There are a lot of good but short interrogations of things here, like Jess’s criticism of the school’s LGBTQIA club, and I have to say, I’m really interested in Lee’s choice to keep all of the queer stuff accurate to the present, as opposed to doing something like Always Human. I just want to read more.

The next book in the series, Not Your Villain, is out sometime next year (2017) and will be told from Bells’ perspective. I’m excited.

Trigger warnings: nothing particularly big I can think of. Jess gets electrocuted at some point? Missing family members?

This and other reviews by Aoife can also be found at https://concessioncard.wordpress.com/.

Cara reviews Dynama by Ruth Diaz

 

dynama-ruth-diaz

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.

Kathryn Hoss reviews Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

not your sidekick
Five words: lesbian, bisexual, and trans superheroes.
Wait, I think I need a few more.
Lesbian, bisexual, and trans superheroes taking on the kyriarchy, falling in love, and just… being kids.
Jessica Tran doesn’t fit in. I know, not the most original premise. But along with all the normal crap teenagers worry about– mediocre grades due to excessive daydreaming, crushes on intimidating Volleyball players, jobs and internships and college applications… Jess has the added pressure of being the only person in her family who hasn’t exhibited superpowers.
It’s been ten years since I was Jess’s age, and the world has changed a lot since then. Back in my day, most of us didn’t have smartphones, or Facebook, the endless scroll of notifications. Not Your Sidekick takes that technology a step further, into a world with holographic communication devices on every wrist, driverless cars on every street, and a robot housekeeper in every home. Despite the surface convenience, the infrastructure of North America has crumbled, good jobs are scarce, and all that flashy technology? It’s constantly malfunctioning.
Is this gonna resonate with the tumblr generation, the “millennials,” those of us disenfranchised by our currently-crumbling systems of government? Oh hell yes.
The cool thing is, Not Your Sidekick doesn’t just offer up a hopeless dystopian nightmare– it shows the world on the verge of being fixed.
This is a story about false binaries, and how one can go about smashing them. Jess starts off the story as bisexual with no qualms about it, which is refreshing. She does struggle with her cultural identity, as the child of Chinese and Thai refugees from the Southeast Asian Alliance– too American for the Thai sandwich shop, too fobby for her old friends from Chinese School. Finally, there’s the titular binary, the concept of heroism versus villainy. Who decides which is which, and why?
Okay, so I’m a sucker for worldbuilding, especially when it doesn’t forget that a major continent exists. But I also thought this novel shone when it came to its portrayal of the intense platonic love that can form in a tight-knit group of friends, as well as the complicated dynamic of idolization turning to genuine love.
The novel is not without its flaws. Some of the prose seemed unpolished, the twists predictable, the pace a little too rushed. But Not Your Sidekick is also Not Your High Literature. It’s camp. It’s trope-y. It frequently defies the laws of physics. (When one or more of your characters can manipulate gravitational fields, that will happen.) If anything, the way the narrative played so seamlessly into superhero tropes made me visualize it as a movie–and man, that would be a good movie.
Let me put it this way: there is a glut of blatant wish-fulfillment books, movies, and TV shows about male superheroes. There is a handful about female superheroes. Before Not Your Sidekick, I could think of one lesbian or bi superhero whose sexuality was explicitly mentioned in a long-form work, and she was killed off (Black Canary on Arrow). Not Your Sidekick is the story LGBT fans deserve, AND the one we need right now. My biggest problem with it?
It’s the first of a trilogy, and we have to wait until 2017 for the next one.

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.