I enjoyed the first book in C.B. Lee’s Sidekick Squad series, Not Your Sidekick. Set a few hundred years in the future, after a solar flare ignited a gene mutation that created meta-humans. The US, Canada and Mexico have reformed into the North American Collective, and The Hero’s League of Heroes wars with the United Villain’s Guild to keep the population safe (and entertained). In the first book, Jess and her best friends Bells and Emma uncover a massive government plot, and discover that everyone’s favorite hero, Captain Orion is actually evil.
Not Your Villain doesn’t pick up where the first book left off–it goes back and retells the events of the first book from Bells’s perspective, before launching into new territory. Bells’s character was by far my favorite thing about this book. He’s a black trans teenager with a super awesome family (they run a restaurant and an illegal farm). He’s also a shapeshifter meta-human, an A+ friend, and an all-around kind, gentle, genuine person with whom it was a delight to hang out for a while.
Bells’ transness has absolutely nothing to do with anything, which was so refreshing to read. It has 0% bearing on the plot, and there is also no transphobia in this book. At all. Bells’s family is adorable, supportive and delightful, as are his friends. He’s a teenage dude with superpowers and a crush on his best friend. Normal stuff. This series is similar in some ways to April Daniel’s Sovereign series–both are smart YA superhero stories with trans heroes, but Sovereign is full of transphobia. It’s everywhere, not just in the background, but as part of the plot as well. That’s not a criticism, necessary, but if you’re looking for an engaging, fluffy read with a trans main character and 0% queer suffering, this is your book.
I have to say, it was pretty fantastic to read a book with a trans main character where they are not ever mispronounced (deliberately or otherwise) and no one calls them by their deadname. It seems like this should not be such an anomaly. I understand that both of those things are real things that trans people go through, and it’s not bad that it happens in literature–but it also doesn’t always have to happen. Just like we can have books with gay characters in which no one bullies them or calls them names, we can have books where trans characters just get to be superheroes, transphobia not included.
The book itself, though, was a lot less satisfying than the characters and the diverse representation. Not much happened. I found the first half, in which the the events of Not Your Sidekick are retold, boring and tedious, and couldn’t figure out why Lee chose to include them. I was super excited when we finally got past that, but then…not a lot happens. There wasn’t much tension. It felt like a lot of the book was teenagers waiting around for something to happen, having meetings, hanging out. There were some dangerous moments, but they all resolved super quickly and I never felt like anything was at stake. All of the action and adventure felt way too easy. Then the book ended without any resolution. There’s going to be a third book, but this ending wasn’t even a cliffhanger. It just felt boring. Not a lot happened in the book, so there wasn’t much to resolve come the end.
It was a fairly quick read, and I loved the characters, so I’m not unhappy I read it. I also really appreciate the way Lee plays with superhero tropes (subversive superhero stories are the only kind I like), and her world-building, in general, is excellent. There’s a lot to love about this book, but as a novel, it felt loose and meandering, and ended up not being as satisfying as I’d hoped.
If you’re looking for an easy, warm, affirming read about queer teenagers who have each other’s backs, sans transphobia and queer suffering, this is your book. But don’t expect a page turner.