Curiosity Quills Press, 2014, 374 pages
Penelope Akk wants to be a superhero. She's got superhero parents. She's got the ultimate mad science power, filling her life with crazy gadgets even she doesn't understand. She has two super powered best friends. In middle school, the line between good and evil looks clear.
In real life, nothing is that clear. All it takes is one hero's sidekick picking a fight, and Penny and her friends are labeled supervillains. In the process, Penny learns a hard lesson about villainy: She's good at it.
Criminal masterminds, heroes in power armor, bottles of dragon blood, alien war drones, shape shifters and ghosts, no matter what the super powered world throws at her, Penny and her friends come out on top. They have to. If she can keep winning, maybe she can clear her name before her mom and dad find out.
Superhero novels are like space opera — I love 'em when they're done right, and groan when they just suck the air out of the genre.
Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain tells you right in the title what kind of tone you can expect. It is a middle grade-to-young adult novel with thirteen-year-old protagonists, and it's a fun, mostly light-hearted romp that treats the genre seriously. It will remind you of The Incredibles or one of the better Cartoon Channel productions.
Richard Roberts has created an extensive superhero mythology for this book, and that leads to a bit of bloat as we are introduced to dozens of characters, some only mentioned in passing. There are old, classic heroes and villains rubbing shoulders with the new kids on the block. Bits and pieces of superhero lore are dropped here and there, from the powerful hero Evolution who was apparently responsible for many of the next generation of supers, to an alien invasion by a race known as the Conquerors, that was (in true comic book tradition) kept secret from most of the world. And all of this is just background, not directly relevant to the plot.
Penny Akk and her friends go to Northeast West Hollywood Middle School. Penny is the daughter of two retired superheroes: Brian Akk, a Reed Richards-like scientist/inventor, and a mother who is also a supergenius, formerly known as the Auditor.
Roberts obviously likes gadgeteer heroes, as they play a prominent role in this book, centering on Penny, who is delighted when her "mad science" abilities begin manifesting. Her parents are delighted too, but warn her not to expect them to fully develop for a few years.
Her parents are wrong: Penny is soon a full-fledged mad scientist, building gizmos that exceed even her father's creations, and also gaining an intuitive ability to plot and scheme. If she doesn't watch out, she'll become a literal mad scientist...
Her friends Claire and Ray are also the children of superheroes. Claire is the daughter of a former villainess-gone-straight known as the Minx, and it's pretty clear that Claire is going to follow in her mother's super-sexy footsteps. Ray... we don't learn much about his parents, except that they're pretty obviously bad.
Penny concocts a formula that triggers Claire's and Ray's powers as well, so of course the three of them decide to go out superheroing. Unfortunately, they are not the only children of superheroes at their middle school, and an unfortunate encounter with a super-powered sidekick who also happens to be the school's Mean Girl results in Penny and her friends being accused of being bad guys. This sets off a chain of events in which they find themselves having to continue pretending to be supervillains.
And they discover that they are really, really good at being supervillains. And they kind of like it.
Superhero novels often read a bit like a superhero RPG with the main characters all having character sheets, but this is the first superhero novel where I'd kind of like to play with the author as the GM. The super-powers and the battles all follow a logic that is bound by internal consistency but not by either rigid Brandon Sanderson-like restrictions where the point is figuring out the rules, nor the laws of physics. It's like one of those games that rewards players for coming up with creative uses of their powers.
Penelope and her friends are soon inducted into the local "community" of supervillains, which in Los Angeles acts in a semi-organized fashion under the leadership of the sinister Spider. This is a young adult superhero world, so the heroes and villains observe, for the most sort, a kind of gentlemanly rules of war, though there are the occasional psychos on both sides.
As they get pulled in deeper and deeper, the trio, who calls themselves The Inscrutable Machine, find themselves caught between extortion by Spider, fear of being found out by their parents, and the thrill of actually beating grown-ups at their own game. As they pull off bigger capers, even the heavy hitters start taking them seriously.
The climactic battle, at the Los Angeles Public Library, reads like one awesome superhero RPG session in which the GM is just improvising as he goes along.
One naggling point bothered me to the point that it could not bridge my suspension of disbelief: Penelope calls herself "Bad Penny" (actually, she gets stuck with that nom de guerre), Claire calls herself "E-Claire," and Ray Viles is called "Reviled." And we're supposed to believe no one, not even Penny's supergenius parents, figure out who they are.
The author has apparently gotten a lot of complaints about this, and he even added some revisions to try to explain how the kids got away with it, but I still thought that was a glaring flaw in the plot. But it was not enough to detract from what was otherwise an awfully fun and entertaining, well-crafted supers book.
Verdict: A fun, light-hearted adventure for anyone who loves superhero comic books, especially those aimed at the younger set. Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain surprised me with how much I liked it; I plan to get the soon-to-be-published sequel as soon as it's out. 9/10.
My complete list of book reviews.