Book Review: “Not Your Sidekick” by C.B. Lee

Get ready to feel super with the supremely fun Not Your Sidekick, the kick-ass story of high-school-student-turned-supervillain-intern Jess Tran and her crush, Abby Jones. This is the perfect book for people who love Ms. Marvel, Supergirl, or anyone who has ever taken a “what’s your superpower?” quiz. Following Jess’s adventures navigating expectations in her post-apocalyptic hometown, Not Your Sidekick is a warm, hilarious, and inspiring young adult book about falling in love and being extraordinary that shows we’re all a little super! Author C.B. Lee puts her bisexual, Vietnamese-American heroine in the path of her toothpaste-commercial, sparkling-white superhero idols and lets her discover that things are a little murkier than appearances would suggest.

Welcome to Andover, where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship–only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain. On the up side, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, who Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then there’s the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby. But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether.

The highly anticipated Not Your Sidekick demonstrates C.B. Lee’s brilliant ability to create uplifting, enjoyable, and entertaining YA that explores racial identity, heritage, family, sexuality, romance, and friendship in a refreshingly light and honest read. If you’re looking for a read that is all about the plot and fun and “just happens to be” inclusive without being reductive, Not Your Sidekick ticks all the boxes. What we get is a deftly and cleverly layered story that has delicate touches of world building and plot exposition. It also features an incredibly eye-catching and gorgeous cover, with artwork from C.B. Messer. Lee has mentioned that she is particularly thrilled it is evident that Jess is Vietnamese on the front cover, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Lee opens her book with Jess testing her abilities against the hot and dusty background of the Californian desert outside of the town of Andover. Where Jess literally falls flat on her face in the first few pages, there’s great scope to follow her journey as she picks herself back up and gets on with life. Lee’s evocative writing lends itself perfectly to the superhero genre, with a deft nod to tropes and a wonderful inventiveness that gives the story its own individual flair. Beyond her struggles with her non-existent powers, Jess has the friendship and support of Emma and Bells and the love of her hero parents. However, she’s always felt under the shadow of her perfect-grade and superhero-in-training big sister, and that familiar feeling of struggling to meet expectations is a theme throughout the book and a hurdle Jess must somehow learn to fly over.

I was so happy to see on the page representation of under-represented sexualities and genders. Jess’s blurting of her bisexuality in an assignment and her unwillingness to join the Rainbow Club is a clever way of putting her attraction on the page without making it all about whom she’s currently dating. Likewise, Lee’s side character Bells is transgender, and I hugely appreciated the no-nonsense way Lee ensured that his pronouns are acknowledged. There’s also a lot of fun in the way that Bells’s self-expression and fashion choices reject the gender binary and hint at his own special skillset within the narrative. I can’t wait to read his adventures in the next book!

There’s also a lot of fun to be had in Jess’s obliviousness – Lee isn’t trying to catch you by surprise with revelations; instead, like Clark Kent and his glasses, the identities are teased at throughout – it’s Jess who carries on without seeing what’s hidden behind the frames. In the case of Not Your Sidekick, that is the mysterious M who only appears in full body armor when Abby is otherwise occupied…the partnership between Jess and Ab…M is particularly enjoyable, with lots of flirtatious banter in the workplace over the intricacies of the mundane filing and tinkering with robotics. The idea of Jess’s internship as the driving force of the plot is particularly clever, dwelling on all the tasks that young adults can easily relate to in their first steps into employment. With a supervillain twist.

The development of their friendship, partnership, and relationship throughout Not Your Sidekick is just super feel-good and lovely, the perfect positive highlight of happiness to add to your LGBTQ* library.

As with her previous book, Seven Tears at High Tide, Lee creates a detailed glimpse at the cultural landscape and actions that led to her current setting, exploring a diverse world that influences the society, culture, and politics of her post-apocalyptic world in 2123. There’s a lot of thought put into the way the devastating nuclear meltdowns, natural disasters, and World War III have affected the old America and the world at large, with nods to the immigration movement that resulted from the chaos. Plus there are super-cute robots, reminiscent of Wall-E and BB8. What more could you ask for?

Joyful, exciting, and flirtatiously romantic, Not Your Sidekick is perfect for fans of superhero stories such as The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Hero by Perry Moore, and contemporaries like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. Not Your Sidekick made me laugh, gasp, and swoon. It’s the story of who you are and who you could be in a world where we are all equal, no matter how super.

5 stars

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.