Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee (September 8, 2016); 296 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here.
I keep wanting to call this book “plucky.” I think that’s because it manages to balance itself nicely between pessimism about the future (or perhaps it’s skepticism about our vision of the future) and optimism about, well, being alive, love, goodness, all that. Optimism wins, but not without a hard fight.
Not Your Sidekick is a fun adventure set in a post WWIII future, in which a small percentage of the population is born with powers-beyond-average. Those people register with the government, and are subsequently permitted entry into the Heroes League of Heroes (and oh, goodness, but I get happy giggles at the ridiculous bureaucracy suggested by the redundancy of that name), take on a “super” alter ego and live kind of like Superman in the comics: a mundane life as an average person, and a secret life as a hero, roaming the streets, performing rescues, thwarting evil, and doing general good. The government assigns a certain percentage of these “super” people to become villains, so there’s a good-evil balance, and there’s consistent work for everyone.
Jess Tran is born into a family of supers in the area of what used to be Nevada; her parents are—by day—a mild-mannered pair of Happy Middle-Class Suburbanites with 3 kids and—by…other day—Smasher and Shockwave, a dynamic crime-fighting duo. Jess’ brother Brendan is some sort of Super Science Nerd-Genius who cavorts with beakers and safety goggles in his free time. Her sister Claudia is a new hero, recently graduated from the Meta-Human Training Program and off being super somewhere, usually with Jess’ idol, the bright-toothed and model-flashy heroine Captain Orion. Jess has not developed any noticeable super powers (which she must discover before she turns 17 or she won’t be allowed to register as a Meta-Human—and thus, a hero—with the state). She lives with the disappointment and shame of being different from her family and rather un-special, until she takes an internship with the robotics company run by one of her parents’ arch nemeses, Master Mischief. There, Jess strikes up a friendship with the object of her Big Ole Crush, Abby, who’s working as some sort of secretary; Jess also struggles to keep up her friendships with Bells, her FTM bestie, and Emma, her cis-femme friend who has a painful crush on Bells, and tries to please her boss—or, at least, his representative, a mysterious person who wears a Master Mischief super suit, but is clearly not Him.
There’s twists here I’m trying not to give away: secret identities and secret feelings, plot twists and character 180s abound, like literary bumper cars. Suffice it to say, there’s lots of action, and Jess finds herself in the position of teaming up with her crush to save people she’s spent her life distrusting, loving someone she’d never expect, seeing her family and her heroes from a different perspective, and uncovering her own power (be it super or non-).
She does all this in the absence of her parents, with her friends—and her own intuition—to guide her. In this way, the novel strikes me as the quintessential coming-of-age story, though the details may look very different from what we, in contemporary America/Europe, expect. But the heart is the same: young woman has to figure out her abilities, has to find her purpose, discovers desire and falls in love, then begins to drop her childhood illusions and see people for who they “really” are.
The protagonist, Jess, is compellingly sympathetic for almost anyone who has been a teenager (particularly a queer one); she’s awkward, unsure, fumbling through failures and the occasional hard-won success, full of longing. But I make the novel sound more heavy than it should—it’s fun, too. It’s set in an interesting future world, part Jetsons (a smooth, silver, automated fantasy) and part Brazil (a janky, steam-punk, be-tubed future bureaucracy.) (The best example of this is Jess’ family MonRobot, an older model who (that?) is charmingly inept and clunky, who vaccuums itself in circles and gets stuck in places and, though mostly a glorified Roomba, is still a wonderfully lovable little guy.) Jess is actually a pretty happy, driven character. Her friends are awesome. Her life, even without powers or a love affair, is pretty good. There’s love and intrigue, secrets and adventure to be had.
There’s also a really lovely aspect to this book that deserves its own mention: Jess is first-generation American (her parents emigrated to the North American Collective from somewhere in the former Asia), and though the novel doesn’t ever hammer this point at the reader, one can easily read the Discovering-One’s-Super-Difference and the Growing-Up-First-Gen-and-Not-White-in-America as parallel—or at least related—story lines about defining oneself, discovering one’s power, making an identity. There’s also the quiet little factor (again, not surfaced, but present enough to color the narrative) of an ethnically-Asian girl in a largely-Caucasian culture discovering her abilities and worth, despite that dominant culture often interpreting her as lesser–it rings relevant here. Of course, there’s also the parallel with queerness: a difference that’s both relevant and irrelevant, something one discovers about oneself, something that has the potential to change the way everyone else looks at you, something that often involves a secret identity or hidden life. I think of parallels with the lives of many women, too, and how they (okay, we) had to work hard to recognize our own abilities and value and place in the world.
The ties between the “superhero” narrative and the narrative of a non-white queer girl coming of age are there, certainly, but not the point—the point is a superhero story, and one that needn’t be qualified as a superhero story about a first-gen queer Asian girl. It’s just that readers often think of that kind of story as a qualified hero story (a hero story about…), rather than just a hero story. It’s a political decision to normalize her narrative, not make it all about her differences (her ethnicity, her gender, her sexuality). It’s a political decision that strikes me as really refreshing (we need both kinds of stories–those which insist on difference and those which insist on sameness–to be told). White, straight male heroes get to have narratives that don’t center on their identities, so why shouldn’t Jess?
This book is a bit of a departure in tone and style from Lee’s first book, Seven Tears at High Tide, which I might call a supernatural romantic fairy tale (this book is quirky and bright, where the former book is mystical and almost mournful), but readers will notice a similar optimism, faith in friendship/love, and a dip into the unreal that manages to seem plausible even as it’s far from the details of the mundanity we know.