Reviews, reviews, reviews! I keep writing them because I keep reading absolutely fantastic queer books! This time round I’m delighted to recommend these three, featuring superhero conspiracies, adventures in outer space, and the emotional tale of a friendship falling apart. Read on…
Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee (2016)
Rainbow rep: a bi main character, an f/f romance, a trans best friend
Rating: 4 out of 5 adorable high-tech robots
Content warnings: non-consensual medical experiments, though nothing depicted graphically
Premise: when a series of solar flares hit the earth with radiation, one positive side effect among the natural disasters and subsequent wars for resources was that people started developing superpowers. Generations later, “meta-humans” are a fact of everyday life, and every town worth its salt has at least a couple of government-assigned heroes and villains who run around in costume like the comics and movies in days gone by. Jess, despite being the daughter of two superheroes, hasn’t developed any powers herself, a fact she’s universally bummed about. When her search for an after-school job finds her interning for the local mischievous supervillains, she’s excited to finally get to be involved in something… but ends up deeper than she planned when she begins to uncover nefarious plots that skew the very idea of “hero” and “villain”.
I actually love superheroes. I kind of forgot, given how exhausted I’ve become with the MCU and its endless oversaturation of the movie scene and its endless convoluted stakes. Not Your Sidekick reminded me what I find so fun and fascinating about the genre, dare I say appealing to the younger version of me who loved Sky High along the way, though with much more flair and (needless to say) much more diversity. The world Lee has constructed is surprisingly immersive, vibrant, and full to the brim of delicious, intriguing themes about the role of the superhero genre—as a pop cultural force, as a potential propaganda tool, and as something that can be so carefully constructed to make us look in a certain direction and conceptualise morality a certain way.
This also appeals because, spiralling down from the Big Themes the latter part of the book gets into, it’s also a very grounded, personal story. Jess is an endearing narrator, and her struggle with where to place herself—both as the powerless child of meta-humans, and as the biracial child of immigrants in America, and as a bisexual girl in a world that’s more inclusive but still kind of catching up in that regard—was believable and sympathetic. Her patented Disaster Bi fumbling was also delightful, especially since it played into a trope that I find particularly tasty: secret identities, used for shenanigans. Jess’ crush, Abby, and her mysterious, always-masked co-worker “M”, have never been seen in the same room together. But that still means they’re definitely different people, right? It’s not wild for Jess to confide in M about her feelings for Abby, and it’s not weird that M gets kind of flustered about this?
Yes, you can see this (and some other “who could that hero be?”) plot twists coming a mile away, but for me that’s part of the joy, especially in the dynamic that it added to the romance. Does it make Jess seem a little short-sighted? Maybe, but again, in an endearing sort of way; and I can’t really fault her for not knowing she’s the star of her own superhero narrative, even if she knows them so well. It was part of the fun, and above all else I had great fun with this novel—it’s cheesy in all the right places, has genuinely intriguing and surprisingly intricate worldbuilding, and plays around with superhero tropes while clearly having a healthy dose of love for the genre. This is the first book in a series, with each new instalment switching to a different character’s perspective, so I’m definitely looking forward to picking up Not Your Villain and spending some time with Jess’ best friend Bells and seeing what he can bring to the table.
The Disasters by M.K. England (2018)
Rainbow rep: queer ensemble cast: a bi dude, a trans lady, a m/m/f tangle of affections that ends in lowkey polyamory
Rating: 4 out of 5 runaway spaceships
Content warnings: depictions of anxiety and panic attacks, transphobia in character backstory
Premise: Nasir “Nax” Hall has just flunked his space pilot test, and is about to be jettisoned back to Earth alongside four other washouts: medic Zee, tech genius Case, and diplomat’s son Rion. Their exit is derailed when a terrorist group attacks the space station, and the four strangers have to become fast companions as they steal an escape pod and make an emergency crash landing… only to discover, upon crashing on one of the many terraformed planets out in space, that they’re being blamed for the attack. After teaming up with/being rescued by rebel hacker Asra, they set out on a quest to not only clear their names but figure out the truth behind the whole thing.
I saw Spellhacker on a “coming soon” list for queer YA, and was so enthralled by the goofy-wonderful name and the magic-science premise that I pre-ordered it. By pure coincidence, a few days later a friend pulled M.K. England’s first book out of their bag and recommended it. Well, now I’m extra glad I decided to check out this author! The Disasters is a heck of a lot of fun, sending a fire-forged found family of queer kids spiralling through space. It’s a little corny, but exactly in the way that makes zippy cosmic adventures good, and Nax is a delightful little bastard of a narrator with a solid blend of sarcasm and sympathy to him.
The interplanetary worldbuilding is also very fun—too often you see sci-fi media scrapbooking a bunch of Middle Eastern influences together for their Designated Desert Planet without actually folding in any of the culture, so it was great to follow the characters through an explicitly Muslim settlement on a terraformed planet. Why should the vision of space colonisation be full of Americans first and only? Space is not always where I like to spend my reading time, but the cosmic world of the story was very vivid and fun, and the story carries through on characters I really liked.
Nax, as well as a wannabe hotshot pilot, reluctant leader, and ball of anxieties, is also a certified Disaster Bi. Interestingly, his simultaneous attraction to both Rion and Case was never really played as a love triangle, at least not in the way that I remember love triangles being done Back in the Day. Have we as a society genuinely moved on? The ending is a little ambiguous as to how this dual affection has been resolved, since he’s clearly made strides with both of them and they’re aware of his feelings, hence that “lowkey” in my description of the relationship up there. The novel very much ends with a “and the adventure continues!” and there’s plenty of room for sequels and more shenanigans, so I can only hope we see those and these questions get a little more ironed out. Romance or otherwise, I would love to see what happens next for this rag-tag crew and where else in the vast universe they can go.
We Used to be Friends (2020) by Amy Spalding
Rainbow rep: a bi main character in an f/f romance
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 dirty chai iced lattes
Content warnings: death of a parent by illness in backstory
James (a girl with a boy’s name, due to an argument between her parents) and Kat have been best friends since they were little, and are looking forward to finishing high school and journeying out into the Big Wide World together. But over the course of their final year, things happen that send two already very different people drifting further apart: James’ parents, who had once been high school sweethearts, separate, prompting James to panic-dump her own lovely boyfriend in a fit of existential dread. James does not communicate any of this to Kat, who is—unknowingly—wearing blinders to her dearest friend’s pain in the wake of her own dramatic breakup, and subsequent new relationship with her first girlfriend. It seems like one life is spiralling downhill while one is only going up, but things are always more complicated than they seem.
Stories of platonic heartbreak are few and far between, despite the fact that the loss of a friendship can emotionally wreck you just as much as (or even worse than!) a romantic breakup, especially when you’re in your teens. We Used to be Friends is such a beautiful rendition of this, and the characters and their conflict feels so painfully real. I could recognise my younger self in both James and Kat, in the struggles they were dealing with and the mistakes they were making. They’re two likeable but recognisably flawed protagonists, and the dual perspective means you get into both these girls’ heads—demonstrating sharply that this dilemma isn’t one singular person’s fault, and rescuing them from being The Bad Guy in the other’s narrative.
Yes, Kat comes across as superficial and self-centred, but listening to her internal narration lets you in on the motivations behind her (misguided) attempts to make Everything Perfect and Okay, All the Time. Yes, James’ silence when it comes to her problems with Kat comes across as passive-aggressive, but seeing things through her eyes you understand why she’s chosen to bottle herself up. Neither of these personal decisions are good ones, necessarily, but you understand them. When I say I wanted to shake these characters by their shirt collars and force them to communicate, I mean it as a compliment to the book. It’s a very nuanced, layered portrayal of a fracturing relationship.
As well as the dual point of view, the way the novel plays with chronology also adds to the intrigue and the bittersweetness: Kat’s chapters go forward in time, but James’ chapters go backwards, beginning at the end of the year and working their way back to where Kat’s storyline started. That may sound a little confusing or postmodernist, but it’s easy to follow, especially once you get used to it, and engineers special extra little bits of heartache as you track the development of both sides of this story as they cross over with one another, the narrator oblivious to details you already know.
This is a gorgeous book that really resonated with me, and that I think will resonate with anyone who has drifted apart from close friends through the passage of time and tide and the kinds of BS life tends to throw at you in your high school years. If all this sounds depressing, I want to reassure you that it has incredibly sweet moments to balance out the bitter, and (if you pay attention to that topsy-turvy timeline) even leaves off on something of a hopeful note for both the leads. It’s very fun as well to have a queer main character in a story that doesn’t centre on their romance—again, romance is important in people’s lives and a great thing to base a narrative around, but it was rewarding to have Kat’s friendship front and centre in the plot.