Thursday, February 26, 2015

Please don't tell my parents...

Some more book reviews from me. When I got the first two “Jeeves” story collections by P. G. Woodhouse and the complete “Anne of Green Gables” collection downloaded to my Kindle app on the PC yesterday, I was reminded I had, more or less on a whim, also bought two novels by Richard Roberts a little while ago. My guess is that they are geared towards teens, which would also fit with the age of the main characters, but they were so interesting and entertaining, I read them both yesterday, staying up longer than I had expected to.

“Please don’t tell my parents I’m a supervillain” is the first of the two novels centred around Penelope Akk, Claire Lutre, and Ray Viles, all 12 years old and middle school students. Penelope, Penny for friends and family, is the daughter of two superheroes herself and absolutely set on developing her own superpowers yesterday by preference. In the process of building a machine that could awaken her powers, she has her first invention ‘episode,’ coming up with a mechanic, voice-activated centipede that serves as both tool and recycler. While her parents expect her powers to develop slowly now, over the course of years, Penny is set to be a hero within a year. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned. Not only does she awake her best friend Claire’s powers (Claire’s mother is a supervillain-turned-superhero) by accident (the serum was only supposed to make Claire more fit for being a cheerleader), she also gives her friend Ray superpowers with the same serum. Her first act as a superhero is to stop Ray from trashing the science fair after Penny was disqualified, since judges didn’t believe she had really built the Machine (the mechanic centipede), while the school bully Marcia will win with a project she probably did nothing for herself. Unfortunately, Marcia set the whole thing up in order to catch a villain and Penny and Claire have to help their friend get away, while Marcia aka Miss A tries to catch them. To make up for their first ‘supervillain’ appearance, they try to stop another young villain, who was stupid enough to announce his first coup online, only to be pushed back into the ‘villain’ mould by Marcia and two other heroes. Unfortunately, in the course of these endeavours, Penny and her friends also get their names as a team (The Inscrutable Machine) and as individuals - Bad Penny (not because Penny’s identity was revealed), E-Claire (an alias Claire used online already and that goes well with her ‘cute’ mind manipulation powers), and Reviled (which Penny creates on a moment’s notice, based on Ray’s full name). The only adults who learn about the identities of the three new supervillains in town are Claire’s mother (who doesn’t mind, as a former villain), the sometimes-villain/sometimes-hero LucyFar (a good friend of Claire’s mother), and Spider, the former arch-enemy of Penny’s parents. During the course of the first novel, however, Penny and her team manage to gain the respect of the supervillains of LA (where the story is set) and become recognized as villains themselves, with all the rules and protections that includes.
In “Please don’t tell my parents I blew up the moon,” school has started again and Penny’s parents still don’t know their own daughter, now 13, is the leader of the hottest team of young supervillains in the city, The Inscrutable Machine. Then she and her two friends get a message from Spider for a job that will take them to Jupiter. Penny is supposed to build a functional spaceship to investigate a strange message from a human-sounding young girl that originated somewhere in the vicinity of Jupiter. For this, she makes an organic spaceship and goes on a trip with Claire and Ray. They stumble upon proof the alien race known as “Conquerors” (whose technology Penny unknowingly copied for one invention in the first book) has fought a battle against other aliens out in the asteroid belt. They also find a remainder of those aliens, a biological tissue that controls and mutates beings and objects it comes into contact with, referred to as “Puppeteers.” They destroy a last hideout of the Puppeteers on their way to Jupiter, picking up a partially changed human from the turn of the twentieth century. Close to Jupiter, they meet several human colonists from the Jupiter moons Europe, Callisto, and Io who fled Earth during World War II. And there they are again, the supervillains who actually want to be heroes, caught between intrigues, old enemies, monsters, aliens, and a lot of Steampunk technology. It’s up to Penny and her team to solve it all, preferably before the Puppeteers are replaced by monsters even better at controlling humans. Sometimes, you just have to blow up a moon to save mankind when you’re a supervillain.

While both novels are nominally young adult fiction, they definitely are entertaining for older audiences as well. Luckily, the author has avoided the typical pitfalls of writing a story about a super-intelligent child (boy or girl alike), which include making them too adult and too obviously above every problem. Penny has the talent to make new stuff, but it’s only partially under her control. And apart from the ability to make a bike out of energy, a mechanical device that can ‘eat’ and ‘reproduce’ every kind of energy, object, or material, Penny is a normal 12-year-old. She has not-so-favourite classes like German (high intelligence doesn’t make a being good at everything), she gets bullied sometimes, she has more or less normal friends, she has a crush on the hero Mech, who is a friend of her parents. And even though she has grown up in a household with two super-intelligent parents, her life at home is refreshingly normal. Yes, when inspiration strikes, Penny can build super-batteries or reproduce alien technology her father can’t understand, but apart from that, she is a teenager with all that includes. There’s also pretty little cliché when it comes to other people in the books. The villains aren’t always aloof or fighting each other, they meet in Chinatown every weekend for parties. The superheroes aren’t always heroic (Marcia and Ifrit seem more like bullies who pretend to do it all for the greater good, Witch Hunter seems to be in the whole hero-business only to kill) and not everyone is always good or evil (LucyFar. who claims to be Lucifer incarnated, pretty much does as she pleases, in a D&D game, she would be true Chaotic Neutral). The pretty girl with the seductress for a mother (Claire, whose mother was once known as The Minx and a villain for most of her life among the supers) doesn’t get her mother’s ability to cloud minds with sexiness, for her it’s cuteness. And Claire is far more of a geek than Mad Scientist Penny, both Claire and Ray are far more into comics and superheroes than Penny is. And when the formerly-bullied boy with the terrible parents (Ray) gets strength, speed, and endurance (and a healthy ego boost), he doesn’t turn into the hero with the white hat, he actually enjoys wreaking havoc far more than Claire and Penny. Emotionally very understandable, but not how it normally goes.
The superhuman ability of Penny’s mother to analyze data fails when it comes to her own child, Barbara Akk, formerly known as The Audit, is always sure The Inscrutable Machine might be a danger to her daughter, but never makes the connection between the facts and the truth. It says a lot that the enemy of her parents makes the connection much sooner, but the Spider proves more or less honourable in her dealings - insofar as you can expect that from a villain (who also isn’t human). It might also say something that of all the superheroes the trio crosses paths with the only one realizing they are actually trying to do the right thing is the one hero everyone fears and nobody listens to - reanimated vampire/zombie Mourning Dove who is known to rather kill villains she stumbles across than take them to jail.

On the whole the two novel about Penny and her friends are a great read, not too challenging, but definitely not simple ‘kids’ novels, either. I really enjoyed reading them and will probably visit them again. I always like the ‘evil’ point of view and the kids aren’t really evil, they’re just a little … misunderstood.