The story follows, and is told by, junior high student Penelope Akk. Her parents are superheroes of the “genius” variety (referred to as “The Brain” and “The Audit”), and Penny has always wanted to be one herself. Who at that age doesn’t want to be a super-something? Her two best friends, Claire Lutra and Ray Viles (yeah, no foreshadowing there, Richard! LOL), certainly want much the same, and the trio hits gold when Penny’s “power” awakens.
Penny, it turns out, is a mad scientist, an inventor with ideas she can’t put words to, and which sometimes takes the driver’s seat as she blacks out, coming back to herself later to behold some invention that even she finds mysterious. That doesn’t happen all the time, as, with practice, she’s able to follow what she’s doing, reminiscent of surfing a wave. But the best surfers in the world know that there are waves mere humans cannot surf.
One of Penny’s early ideas involves a serum, intended to make one just a little more fit, but has the side-effect of awakening one’s superpowers. When Claire drinks a little, she is suddenly high-end athletic and capable of “fogging people’s minds with cuteness,” much like her mother, reformed villain Misty “the Minx” Lutra, can “fog men’s minds with lust.” So Penny’s parents are geniuses and she becomes a mad scientist, while Claire’s mother is a seductress and she becomes the most adorable creature on the planet. Ray’s parentage remains unspoken of, but there are strong intimations that Ray is both ashamed of and even fears his parents, in more than the usual way. As his power, when he snitches a lot of Penny’s serum, is super-strength and prowess, his parents may be something similar.
The trio are most happy and eager to show the world, particularly Penny and Clair’s respective parents, their new powers. Penny, however, was told on day one that while her powers may have “flashed” with her first miraculous invention, it would likely take several more years for them to fully manifest and for her to gain control of them. With her phenomenal progress, Penny wants to surprise her parents with an abundance of grand inventions, so they cannot deny her awakened power, which leads to the creation of several strange things in their lair/secret lab, an abandoned basement below their school.
The secrecy backfires somewhat. In their first public display of superpowers, Penny, Claire, and Ray clash with a superhero’s sidekick, and things go a bit too far. No one is seriously hurt, but the trio are labeled “villains” instead of the “hero” status they covet. Things keep snowballing from there, and while Claire and Ray have fun as villains, Penny finds that she does too. Oh, and she’s good at it. Very good.
She intends to publicly switch sides as soon as it’s feasible, but still, she’s very good at supervillainy.
In fact, as the trio keeps popping up in the public eye, their reputation grows even faster than their accomplishments. Are they talented rookies? Are they trained and equipped by an established villain? Are they a recon team working on behalf of alien invaders? (the aliens, fyi, have already been beaten back once, so this is a valid concern)
A combination of their skill, teamwork, quick learning, coincidence, and sheer dumb luck propels them from being nobodies whom no one takes seriously to being fully-fledged equals in the twin communities of heroes and villains. Almost overnight, they graduate from destroying a school science fair to running roughshod over some of the biggest names on both sides. Granted, their reputation is a bit bigger than the truth, as is so often the case, but they do hold their own with the adults. Of that, there is no question.
And they do all of this while 1) having fun and 2) not letting Penny or Ray’s parents know. Claire’s mother is supportive no matter what, being a reformed villain, but Penny’s parents would make her life miserable, and there’s no telling what Ray’s parents might do.
So, with that (hopefully mostly spoiler-free) summary out of the way…
I enjoyed this book! Thoroughly!
Not only was it hilarious to behold the trio’s mischief, not to mention the heroes and villains alike misinterpreting Penny’s actions, particularly when she was trying to switch sides, but there was a fascinating depiction of the relationships of heroes and villains, the dichotomy of “good” and “evil.”
The “hero” side of things is mostly in the background, but we can make easy assumptions that most of them are friends, colleagues, peers, etc. They tend to have varying opinions but a largely-unified approach to various forms of villainy, one they reach through discussion and debate. One example of this is how they treat certain villains, those who show respect and value for civilian lives, with more leniency, such as when they accepted Claire’s mother when she formally switched sides and subsequently retired. Another example involves a conference where they discuss what to do about the antics of the younger generation, including Penny and her friends, as well as a mysterious, silent hero of the same age (and one of the trio’s classmates).
There are outliers of the superhero community, which tends to value even the lives of their enemies. We only hear the names, but future novels in this new series will likely shed more light on those names. Suffice it to say, they don’t let their enemies live.
Much more enthralling, however, is the community of supervillains. These are the people who can be friends one moment, enemies the next, and then go right back to friendship. Penny displays this quite well, as she becomes friends with heroes she has idolized, and then finds herself colliding with them while “on the job,” and then, as the hero in question is unaware of who they were fighting, they are friends again. More than one villain whom the trio cooperates with, even forms friendships with, is also their enemy at some point.
Villains also tend to gain the agreement and cooperation of their peers via means which are less diplomatic than “talking.” Blackmail, intimidation, and violence, for example. Yet, there is a surprising lack of lethality among the members of this community, and they even tend to outcast the sicker murderous psychopaths from their ranks. Under the auspices of the local lord of supervillainy, there is an ongoing truce with the “other side,” such that they can even throw a party in L.A.’s Chinatown every weekend without superhero harassment. This is because official membership in this community involves abiding by certain rules, which adds some order to the chaos and, as psychopaths in the vein of Jack the Ripper tend to be more indiscriminate in who they hurt, they tend to forfeit their protection at some point.
However, outside those rules, anything goes. Villains clash with villains all the time, some of them even displaying an extraordinary amount of humanity, even heroism, at times. There’s a certain formality to everything, such that the boss of supervillains will even notify the heroes when they are going to unleash a mysterious plot, rather like a formal declaration of war in accordance with international treaties. In similar fashion, when one group of villains wants to rough up another, they must get permission first, though there is the caveat that permission to engage is not a guarantee of victory, or even of non-interference by third parties.
So, relationships, much like what people view as “good and evil,” can be very complicated at times, and yet also very simple.
Outside that rather fascinating aspect of this novel, it’s just an entertaining read! The kids are so clever and mischievous, and so easy for an impish geek like me to relate to, I can’t help but find it endearing! As Penny narrates the entire adventure, it really felt like she was talking to us, practically as things happened, instead of relating things after the fact. I just love watching Penny, Claire, and Ray going on their adventures, both as villains and as civilians, and they do work very well together, largely because they’re best friends. They enjoy everything together, from comics, games, and action figures to mad scientific toys and acts of supervillainy (“HAHAHAHA!”). Most of all, they have one another’s backs. Always.
Oh, and the wonders of hormones are adventures unto themselves. 😉
If you haven’t guessed, this one’s getting a pretty good score by me. 😉 I’m only debating with myself on whether it’s an 8 or a 9 out of 10, an A or a B… I’ll go with 9, an A-.
And end with how, first chance I get, I’m adding the next novel in the series, Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Blew Up the Moon, to my collection!