Casey A reviews Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

C. B. Lee may have taken the most interesting spin ever on “write what you know” as her protagonist, Jessica Tran, is a first generation Asian American bisexual, just like she is, but the world of her story is certainly not Lee’s lived experience. Jess lives in the North American Collective, a super state formed after WW3, and her Nevada town of Andover is home to two superhero metahumans as well as their dastardly rival villains. Trying to describe this book without it sounding like a mid 1990s cartoon is a little difficult, but that’s because Lee uses comic superhero genre tropes as a backdrop to the narrative’s main concerns. Jess has to deal with several social and societal issues, as well as a little teenage drama thrown into the mix, as she juggles disappointing her parents, figuring out her friends, and a new internship with a mysterious employer.

Lee skirts around the usual race metaphor that people use when dealing with super humans, and instead grabs the subject of race head on, acknowledging the difficulties of the migrant experience. Occasionally Lee pops a word or two of Chinese into the dialogue, which is a welcome reminder that having a non-white character can invite more cultural complexity than simply stating a skin colour. In some ways it was a little disappointing to find that slurs which are currently used were still prevalent in the book’s setting, but I can understand that it is true to the experience that Lee was trying to get across.

Overall this book is great fun. It’s got a whole host of queer characters across the LGBTQ spectrum, and I found it was really good at moving focus between friends, family, and the wider world something which other YA books often struggle with. Despite a couple of heavy handed moments, Lee is great at introducing character’s queerness, including the subtle hints at one of the characters being trans before it’s explicitly mentioned.

When it comes to setting this story in the future, I don’t feel it was totally necessary. In many ways, it feels like Lee chose the future because old superhero comics would often set things in the future, or simply because authors often use time as a distancing tool. It could easily be an alternative version of now, rather than over a century from where we are, and I sometimes felt I was reading two different books, one a future sci fi and another a deeply felt modern high school drama. This feeling did ebb somewhat as the plot came together and certain discordant aspects fell into place. If you’re looking for speculative sci-fi you won’t find it here, but I think Lee does effectively use the setting she has created.

The pacing was good, and even with my misgivings about the setting, I found the plot and characters very engaging. I’m glad it’s part of a series, as a large amount of the narrative was a set up to something much larger, and I would certainly recommend this to readers who want something which isn’t too challenging on its own, but might lead to something more.

Casey is a non-binary bookseller and writer, a sometime poet and an all-the-time queer. Their favourite genre is usually sci-fi / fantasy, but they can be found reading kids books and angsty YA whenever the mood strikes. Most of their reads are for audiobooks because they have ADHD and printed text is not their friend. They recently attempted to start a bookstagram which you can find here @know.thy.shelf

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.

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.