Welcome to the Sidekick Squad series by C. B. Lee, a fun, feisty trio of young adult science fiction novels about queer teen superheroes leading the resistance against a corrupt regime. In a future version of our world, where the earth was wracked by climate change, war, and natural disasters, Not Your Sidekick opens with everyone thinking everything is fine. The North American Collective controls what was the United States, Canada, and Mexico and caped crusaders and supervillains punch each other in nationally televised battles. Sure, sometimes information disappears and pre-Collective media is illegal, but the government has its people’s best interests in mind…right? When Jess, the superpower-less daughter of two superheroes, takes an internship at a tech company she discovers some dark secrets about what her government is really up to. Meta-humans are going missing and the Collective’s most famous hero is behind it.
The second book, Not Your Villain, centers on Bells, the shapeshifting teenage meta-human who is besties with Jess and Emma. While helping his BFFs uncover the truth about Captain Orion and the League of Heroes he becomes the Collective’s enemy number one. With militarized robots after them, Captain Orion threatening them with a serum that takes away meta-human powers, and the Collective set against them, the Sidekick Squad will push themselves and their powers to the brink.
As Not Your Backup unfolds with powerless Emma at the helm, the true scope of the Collective’s power is revealed. All Emma wants to do is help, but the meta adults want her quiet and out of the way. She can’t do the amazing things her friends can, but she has the know-how and willpower to get things done. Emma is determined to lead the resistance, even if the resistance isn’t ready to let her.
In these tumultuous times, there’s something powerful about a series where young people realize the adults are wrong and that if they want to fix things they’ll have to do it themselves. The real world is chock full of grown ups who don’t care about the problems kids are about to face. The only way this world is going to be livable a century from now isn’t by hand holding the previous generations who let everything get this bad but by the younger generations taking control and making our own rules. The Sidekick Squad wouldn’t exist if the adults in their world could get their acts together and do something productive, but they’re too busy bickering over who’s in charge. They spend every waking moment deliberating and hedging and planning, and as a result they don’t do anything at all. It’s up to Emma, Jess, Bells, Abby, Brendan, and the rest of the squad to save the day.
That being said, there’s a reason some of the adults are so reluctant to act and take so long to come around to the resistance. Lee doesn’t paint them all with the same brush, instead allowing for nuance influenced by cultural and historical context. Bells’ parents have always distrusted the Collective, as their parents did before them and their parents before them. And why wouldn’t they? They’re African American, and if you know anything about my people’s history in this country you’d understand why the Broussards’ try to stay out of Collective’s ever-watchful eye. Jess’ parents immigrated to the Collective from the continent formerly known as Asia, and their initial reluctance to take on the Collective comes from fear. Their lives before the Collective were tragic and hard, and the Collective gave them education, financial security, and a stable life. Why bite the hand that literally feeds you? Emma’s moms, on the other hand, consider themselves a part of the Collective. They believe change comes from within; they don’t want to break the system like the teens do but repair it. Other non-parental adults get just as much dimension as the parental units, even if they only appear briefly. A credit to Lee to be able to craft fully realized characters at every level.
Since it’s Pride Month, we have to talk about how great this series is at queer diversity. Jess is bisexual, Abby is attracted to women, Bells is trans, Emma is on the asexual spectrum, and many of the secondary characters are nonbinary and other shades of queer. I thoroughly enjoyed the queerness of the first two books, but the third hit me right in the feels. Where Not Your Sidekick and Not Your Villain featured main characters who already knew their brand of queerness but were still untangling their sexual and romantic attractions to other people, Not Your Backup was in part about Emma exploring labels.
Often in YA SFF, acespec characters are either already out and comfortable with their identity or their reveal is reduced to a plot point to develop another character. Many also fall back on stereotypes that can feel like poor rep at best, harmful and dangerous at worst. So, when in the first book I sensed Lee was going to have Emma eventually come out as ace, I was ready for disappointment. Turns out I had nothing to worry about.
How Lee showed Emma processing her asexuality and aromanticism was eerily similar to my own experiences. We first meet her as a serial dater. She jumps from relationship to relationship, crush to crush. Emma dates so much because she thinks she has to, because everyone else is so obsessed with relationships, because she can’t understand why it’s so hard for her to feel what everyone else seems to feel intrinsically. If “practice makes perfect” then maybe if she dates enough then she’ll learn how to be attracted to people. Of course that’s not how it works, but when you go through life feeling broken you cling to whatever you can. Like Emma it took hearing someone else’s ace story before I connected the dots in my own life. And like Emma, I tried on several different acespec labels until I found the ones that fit the best (even if they don’t fit perfectly).
The point I’m taking the long way around to get to is this: queer rep can’t just be about people who are already out anymore than it can just be about characters being confronted/blackmailed and forced out of the closet. We need more queer young adult speculative fiction stories about characters figuring out who they are and who they aren’t, characters who pick up and test and discard labels, characters who may not have the answers by the end of the book but know they’re on the right path. And we particularly need that for acespec characters (especially POC). We need to see ourselves not just out and proud but confused and searching. If the crying fit I had when reading the chapter when Emma quizzes Bells’ older brother Sean about his experience being ace/aro is any indication, we desperately need more questioning rep.
Honestly, I can’t think of a single thing I’d change in this series. Not Your Sidekick, Not Your Villain, and Not Your Backup are entertaining and propulsive novels written with confidence, charm, and cheek. C. B. Lee gets not only how to elevate superhero tropes but how to write teenagers in an honest and compelling way. Everything from the worldbuilding to the plots to the character development are firing on all cylinders. The Abby-centric fourth novel, Not Your Hero, can’t come soon enough.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.