Credit Card Debt, Climate Change, and Magical Girls: A Magical Girl Retires by Park Seolyeon

A Magical Girl Retires cover

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I am sure you are all familiar with magical girl stories like Sailor Moon, but have you ever heard of a magical girl with credit card debt? In Park Seolyeon’s A Magical Girl Retires (translated by Anton Hur), our unnamed protagonist is 29, has lost her job during the pandemic, and is now drowning in credit card debt, with no way out that she can see. She decides to jump off Seoul’s Mapo Bridge, but is interrupted by a girl all dressed in white—Ah Roa, the magical girl of clairvoyance. Ah Roa explains to her that in this world where magical girls join a trade union and protect others, the protagonist may be the most important magical girl of all time. But as they work together to unlock her powers, the protagonist’s problems don’t go away: she still struggles with low self-esteem, has her debt, and doesn’t know how to battle the most terrifying threat the magical girls will ever face: global climate change.

A Magical Girl Retires is a fantastic original story that pays homage to the fandom of Sailor Moon while blending the realism of today’s society. The protagonist may be unnamed, but the way that Park outlines her various woes and thought processes makes her anything but a stranger. The conflicts of being in credit card debt and struggling to find a job that will pay the bills is an all-too common one, especially post-pandemic, and I admire the author for not only taking on that challenge, but thriving in showing how it can seem almost impossible to get out of it without losing all hope. At the same, the protagonist maintains a sort of wonder about the task of becoming a magical girl and unlocking her powers, which makes it a joy to read this book. 

Of course, I have to mention the sapphic subplot of A Magical Girl Retires! Ah Roa, the previously mentioned magical girl of clairvoyance, deems the protagonist as being the most important person for her to have ever found, and while the two never establish an official romantic relationship, the vibes are still here. The protagonist wonders what Ah Roa is doing and what she thought of her, and Ah Roa does at one point mention how she never wants to leave the protagonist. 

A Magical Girl Retires is translated by Anton Hur from the original Korean and clocks in at a short 176 pages. I did listen to it through the e-audiobook narrated by Shannon Tyo, and it was an enchanting experience. I have seen mention of the illustrations in various reviews and while I haven’t seen them myself, if they are anything like the narration style of Tyo or the lyrical prose of Park, then I am sure they are lovely. If you are the type of reader to enjoy endnotes, then you will love Hur’s endnote on why he translated the work and the joy he found in doing so. Trigger warnings include domestic violence, idealization of suicide, financial trauma, terrorism, and murder. 

If you enjoy urban fantasy, magical girl transformation sequences, and finding your way in this unpredictable world, you can order your copy of A Magical Girl Retires through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

Join the Henchfolk Union: Strictly No Heroics by B.L. Radley

the cover of Strictly No Heroics

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Strictly No Heroics is a YA urban fantasy novel that treats “super” as an adverb as much as a noun. It introduces a world of supers—superheroes, supervillains—who are super dangerous to normies (non-powered humans) and super helpful to the forces of gentrification. Main character Riley has simple desires: earn enough money for therapy, look out for her little sister. A normie from a normie family, she finds herself drawn into conflicts both super and ordinary when she joins Hench, the supervillain equivalent of TaskRabbit.

The queer content is great. Being queer is normal—sometimes wonderful, sometimes stressful, but never tragic. Riley deals with crushes and worries about coming out, though she knows and understands her own identity already. It’s not news to her that she’s queer—but it might be news to her friends and family. A secondary character is an older man whose husband somehow puts up with him. Their situation is unexpectedly sweet and domestic for a team leader of Henchfolk: they’re married, they banter, their twins frequently remind them about the swear jar.

This is a working person’s superhero world. This novel offers strong “average working day” vibes in a non-average setting. Look, supervillains are busy people. Who do you think picks up their coffee and cleans their labs? That’s right: the underpaid worker drones at Hench. Sometimes, work is boring and unfulfilling. It also offers extreme workdays—because sometimes you’re cleaning a villain’s lab and other times you’re helping construct his laser! This is where it gets really interesting to me. The Henchfolk are not actually evil. Some of this is explored jokingly, as when Riley is trained in anti-marksmanship, but some serves as a very clear parallel for weaponized incompetence, such as when they “can’t find” the deadly laser’s instruction manual. Finally, it introduces the real solution when Riley finds herself flirting with unionization—quite literally, as the lead organizer becomes a secondary love interest!

This is also a story about quiet, everyday love. Sometimes that love is romantic, like the feelings brewing between Riley and Sherman, her spiky, motorcycle-riding, union-touting teammate. Other times, it’s familial. That can be simple, like the love between Riley and her annoying little sister Lyssa; it can be complicated, like the love between Riley and her guardian, Lyssa’s bio-dad, Hernando. As a reader, I found it clear from the start how much Hernando loved Riley, but understood her feelings of uncertainty due to a complicated relationship with her deceased mother.

Finally, this book has excellent disability representation. Both Riley and Lyssa were left disabled by the car crash that killed their mother. Riley has PTSD and Lyssa has a prosthetic leg. It’s not uncommon for superpowered stories to treat disability as a metaphor or trait to be overcome with those powers, and I appreciated a book that wasn’t like that at all.

Strictly No Heroics is about power, family, and the inconvenience of falling in love. It’s about the devastation Superman leaves behind, the lives ruined in his wake, and the gentrifiers who see opportunities. And it’s about being a snarky, genre-wise teenager with very unfortunate crushes.

Content warnings: significant inclusion of PTSD, panic attacks; tangential inclusion of sexual assault, racism

Sam reviews Dreadnought & Sovereign by April Daniels

the covers of Dreadnought & Sovereign

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I’m not all that into superheroes—I don’t really read comic books, I don’t follow superhero media—but I really enjoyed both Dreadnought and its sequel Sovereign by April Daniels. The books are set in a comic-book-esque modern day, where supervillains appear in history textbooks and it’s not unusual to see flying strongmen punch antimatter androids above the downtown skyline. It’s during just such a superfight that the mantle and powers of one of the world’s strongest heroes, Dreadnought, are unexpectedly passed (another comic book trope, I’m pretty sure) to trans teenager Danielle Tozer. The sudden superpowers speed up her transition, but bring with them a host of pressures, judgements, and expectations from both the heroes and villains of the city alike. With her life upended and her family providing its own challenges, Danielle has to figure out who she wants to be with the whole world watching.

I could pretty easily guess that Dreadnought and Sovereign are the author’s first novels; a few expository and dialogue choices stand out a bit awkwardly, and I simply can’t believe the characters are as young as the text claims them to be. All that is overshadowed, however, by how the books manage to balance the union of both trans and superhero narrative. Bluntly put, Dreadnought and Sovereign are popcorn books—and I mean that in the best way possible. They’re fun, easy to read and hard to put down, and best of all, they have a lot of heart. A lot of trans literature from the past 15 years feels laser-focused on struggle and suffering, so a story about being trans that’s also cheesy genre fiction was (to me, at least) a welcome breath of fresh air. 

Coming at it from the other side, YA adventure novels that try to include a trans character without turning into a book about being trans can sometimes feel a little flat, a little shallow. In Dreadnought and Sovereign, Danielle’s life is equally defined by her gender and sexuality as it is by her superpowers; the worst the novels get is a little over-explanatory of certain terms and concepts related to trans identity and issues (but also superhero identity and issues, to be fair). As I read, I could actually feel myself relax as I realized that April Daniels was taking the struggles of a newly out trans woman seriously, but not losing sight of joy along the way.

The world needs more books like these. As coincidence would have it, April Daniels and I actually graduated from the same literature program (though separated by I’m not sure how many years). It’s not hard for me to imagine the pressure she must have received to write serious works full of sad, serious people, and I’m so glad that these are the novels she decided to create. Trans authors deserve just as much range of expression as their cis counterparts, and stories like Danielle Tozer’s deserve to be told.
Supposedly Daniels is working on a third book in the series, but with where Sovereign ended, I don’t think you should wait for it to be finished before picking up the first two—even if, like me, you’re not that into superheroes.

Content Warnings: transphobia, homophobia, child abuse, torture, violence

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.

Sheila reviews Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour #1-2 by Tee Franklin, Max Sarin, and Marissa Louise

Harley Quinn The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour #1 and 2 covers

Considering that I have viewed much of Harley Quinn’s comic, television, and film history from afar until recently (after watching Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which I felt was one of the best bisexually-focused films I have ever seen. Watch it, and tell me I’m wrong, I dare you.), my thoughts on Harley, other characters, and the comic as a whole might be different than that of fans of The Animated Series show. 

For the past few years, I have seen Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy popping up across social media as examples of a canon sapphic relationship between two big characters in DC comics—one of these characters even big enough to warrant her own, aforementioned film. In the handful of films starring Margot Robbie as Harley, this relationship with Poison Ivy is not shown, mentioned, or even hinted at (though Robbie’s Harley is arguably still a queer character). I was excited after seeing previews of the first issue of this new comic series, which showed not only Poison Ivy in a wedding dress with Harley Quinn, but the two of them pictured in various stages of undress and romantic entanglements.

These images were present, alongside even more passionate moments, but I found myself disappointed by the actual story itself. I felt a little baited into thinking these comics would portray this relationship in a good light, without relationship drama destroying every good moment that Harley and Ivy have. Harley’s character is infantilized even more than in her other depictions across other forms of media, and Ivy spends half her time (the other taken up by seducing or being seduced by Harley) chastising Harley for…being the person and character that (I’m assuming a longtime friend and paramour of the villain would know) she has been all along. I want to be able to look at these characters—villains and antiheroes though they are—as a relationship that can last, and last in a healthy manner (especially considering the abuse Harley suffered at the hands of her longtime partner the Joker).

The art style of this work was lovely, and I think the background bits of the story bring up some interesting points (such as Batman swooping in to stop, not the villains, but Commissioner Gordon, who has gone overboard with his attempts to police Gotham). Part of me wants to see where this story goes, and hopes that this comic ends with Ivy and Harley happy together. I worry, though, that the other issues will be filled with more instances of Poison Ivy shitting on Harley, while still benefiting from the love and passion Harley feels for her. At the moment, the relationship is too unhealthy for me to root for, which frustrates me; I had hoped that this would be my first reading of their relationship in the comics, and that it would make me want to read more and give me a relationship to root for, not just an instance of an unhealthy queer relationship that might be passed off as good just for existing amongst so many other heterosexual relationships in comics.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee audiobook cover

Jess Tran comes from superhero parents and has an older sister with powers, but she did not inherit this gene. She decides to find her own way in a world of metahumans and superpowers and ends up at an internship working for The Mischiefs, her parents’ and the city of Andover’s nemeses. However, everything is not what it seems in the world of superpowers, heroes, and villains. With the help of her crush Abby and her friends, Jess sets out to find and reveal the truth.

One of the more refreshing aspects of the story is how Lee handles Jess’ coming out. It’s casually stated when she tells a brief story of a flashback to English class during her earlier high school years. From there, it’s simply a part of who she is and not a narrative point in which the plot revolves around.

The story deals a lot with being exceptional, and it’s weaved deftly within the world-building. In a world where metahumans were created by X29 after the Disasters, it’s easy to see why Jess feels inadequate, especially compared to her superhero parents and sister. Even though her younger brother doesn’t exhibit metahuman powers either, he’s also a child prodigy. Jess finding a way to know her value without exceptional traits makes her a protagonist to root for.

Lee’s world-building gets woven throughout the plot, which readers can appreciate. However, there are often more questions than answers to many of the details she brings up. Through Jess’s point of view, we learn about World War III, the Disasters, the creation of the North American Collective, and other similar governments around the world. But aside from a history book lesson, the reader doesn’t learn much.

An argument can be made though that this is done on purpose because it’s coming from Jess. She only knows what they’ve taught her in school, and up until now, she hadn’t questioned what she was taught. As she unfurls as a character and starts to realize the world she’s been fed is a lie, that’s when she questions the Collective, the hero/villain dichotomy, and her place in it all.

The blossoming romance between Abby and Jess is absolutely adorable. Everything from the squishy feelings of a crush to the first kiss to their comfortable jokes together creates a realistic and loveable relationship growth. There’s a scene in particular when Abby sleeps over and the tension is so well written.

Overall, a lot of plot points were obvious to the reader, though not obvious to Jess. But even so, it was a lot of fun to read. And the way it ends leaves the readers wanting more of the world, which is good because it’s the first in a series.

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

Megan G reviews Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armour by Shira Glassman

Cinnamon Blade keeps having to rescue Soledad Castillo, and with each rescue her attraction to the woman grows. Once she finally finds an appropriate setting to ask her out, things start to get crazy. Or, really, crazier.

As soon as I saw that Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor was a sort-of follow up to Knit One, Girl Two, I knew I had to read it. Although it’s not really a sequel, “Cinnamon Blade” is set within the fake fandom discussed in Knit One, Girl Two, and is an absolute delight! An interracial wlw relationship between a bisexual Jewish superhero, and her latinx questioning damsel-in-distress? What more could you want?

One thing Shira Glassman is amazing at is casually including deep, feminist social commentaries in her works without making it seem preachy. The characters are simply having a conversation, and it comes up naturally and honestly. It’s so refreshing to see things like antisemitism and biphobia discussed so casually. It never feels forced, just part of every day life. Which it is! Somehow, she manages to create incredibly realistic situations within a supernatural, completely unrealistic world (where attacks by aliens and vampires? Are a regular occurrence).

Cinnamon Blade and Soledad Castillo have a wonderful relationship. Cinnamon is completely aware of the power imbalance inherent in their relationship and works hard to make things feel equal between them. She refuses to ask Soledad out after she rescues her, feeling it would be placing the woman in an unfair position. Once she manages to ask her out in a neutral environment, she continues to foster an equal relationship between them, making it clear that she does not want Soledad to ever feel that she “owes” her anything.

Also, this is one of the few stories I’ve read that include two women in a relationship openly talking about their sexual desires and fantasies. Both Cinnamon Blade and Soledad are unabashedly sexually attracted to each other, and their honest discussion about it leads to several scorching sex scenes, made all the hotter by their communication.

A couple of warnings for this story: there is a small moment of mild sexual harassment by a male character who never resurfaces. There is also a little bit of violence, and some gore, all typical of the sci-fi superhero setting. Also, as I already mentioned, there are explicit (hot, hot, hot) sex scenes sprinkled throughout the story, so if graphic sexual content isn’t your thing, this may not be the book for you.

Overall, Cinnamon Blade is a fun and sexy adventure, full of open and honest discussion, and a couple that will have you itching for more. A must-read.

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.