Not Your Villain is the second book in the Sidekick Squad series by C.B. Lee. This YA series is set in a semi-post-apocalyptic future (much has been destroyed, but many areas are still doing fine). In this world, some people have super powers.
In order to follow Not Your Villain, you need to have read Not Your Sidekick. In the first book, Not Your Sidekick, Jessica Tran struggled with jealousy when she didn’t manifest powers like her sister did. Jess eventually broke open a huge conspiracy involving the League of Heroes with the aid of her friends Emma and Bells. She also got help from Abby, a girl she had a crush on. Not Your Sidekick is a superhero romance that isn’t afraid to make fun of itself while it also addresses questions of identity and trust.
Not Your Villain is centered around Bells, AKA Chameleon. Bells’ superpower is being able to change his appearance. The first part of the book happens parallel to events in Not Your Sidekick. I hadn’t read Not Your Sidekick in a long time and I had forgotten a lot of the plot and was often confused. This is definitely a series to read in order, both for plot and characterization reasons. Eventually Not Your Villain catches up to the previous book and moves the plot forward, as Bells is framed as a villain and he and his friends try to evade capture while also stopping the conspiracy. Meanwhile, Bells is afraid to tell his best friend Emma that he is in love with her.
A standout feature of this series is its diversity. Jess is Chinese-Vietnamese-American and bisexual. Bells is Creole and transgender. Emma is the daughter of two moms, both Hispanic, and Emma is exploring the possibility that she may be asexual or aromantic. Abby is white and a lesbian. The teens are matter-of-fact about differences in background and sexuality. They care about food, so to them the most important thing about heritage is tamales and jambalaya and bahn mi. They care about health and appearance, so they make sure Bells has access to testosterone shots and a binder when he needs those things. Mostly they think it’s cool that he can change his hair color whenever he wants to. All the characters have many aspects of identity, including their gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, but they are not limited to those elements, either.
This book also uses powers to address the different ways people can respond to having a disability. In the first book, the metaphors about powers had more to do with the struggle to figure out who you are and how to find your place in the world. In Not Your Villain, there’s more of a disability metaphor. Abby’s powers were taken from her in the previous book, and she struggles with adapting to life without her powers. She hopes to regain them over time and with practice – not unlike people doing physical therapy. On the other hand, Emma is completely comfortable with her lack of powers (unlike Abby, she never manifested any). She’s able to keep up, she’s confident that she can contribute to the group, and she points out that she’s the only member of the group that is immune to superpower suppressants.
This series is much better when it comes to character than when it comes to plot. Minutes after reading it I cannot tell you what happened except that everyone ran around a lot and there were robots, a flash flood, and a runaway train. These are all excellent things to have in a book but I’ve already forgotten how they fit into the overall plot (destroy the conspiracy). In fact, I’ve already forgotten the point of the conspiracy.
What I can tell you is that I love how Bells and Emma accept each other for who they are at this point in their lives – he doesn’t push her for more than she is prepared to give him, and vice versa. I love the support everyone gives Bells – his dad gives him testosterone shots because Bells doesn’t like giving himself shots, and when his friends hit a mall to grab the fugitive Bells a set of clothing they remember to grab a binder as well (a binder is a supportive undergarment that creates the appearance of a flat chest, necessary for Bells because changing his shape constantly uses up too much energy). I love the fact that his parents are both supportive and overprotective and cautious, and that the teens want take action RIGHT NOW which seems age-appropriate. I love the way the kids navigate romance within the group, making sure not to ignore friends in favor of new boyfriends or girlfriends. I’m also enjoying how Brendan, Jess’s little brother, is getting a more prominent place in the group as the resident genius.
The next book, Not Your Backup is Emma’s story. I’m looking forward to spending more time with this incredibly engaging group of characters. The books are fast-moving, with fun action scenes and clever uses of superpowers, so while I may lose track of the plot in general I still enjoy watching Bells use shape-shifting abilities to stop a runaway train. Above all I love the representation in this series. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with Emma in the next book!
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