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.