Penny’s career as a supervillain is in jeopardy with parental interference – but there’s a more complex battle happening at school. More and more of Penny’s contemporaries are deciding to be open with their super powers. A club is formed – and of course Penny is picked to lead it
But this points to a whole cultural shift for the city as people are now wearing their powers openly, the more alien super-powered beings are now able to be join the community and it comes with a whole lot of more complex questions: like who these kids want to be and what it actually means to be a super powered being
This book seems to be covering a lot more serious issues than the previous two – it has grown up a bit from the previous incarnations of the story.
When Penny started to gather a huge fanclub following of fellow superhero kids at school, I wondered if the Infernal Machine was going to become an army.
But, it was deeper than that. It instead used all of these kids to ask a lot of difficult questions and broaden the world beyond being just a zany setting of hilarious, almost comical superhero/villain fights
Like what goes into the choice of whether to become a superhero or a supervillain? Which do these kids want to be? Why? It may seem simple but then we see Marcia, poor, tortured, ill Marcia who speaks out of the perfection and repression that comes with heroism. We see kids who have powers that aren’t pretty and just don’t fit neatly into hero themes – including heroes rejecting their superpowered kids because their powers are “thematically” wrong
And what about those kids who do have super powers that just don’t lend themselves to combat? Not ever super power is actually an ideal battle ability. Nor is every altered form ideal for fighting – the kid who looks like they’re made of living glass may be intimidating and kind of awesome, but they’re also waaay too brittle to be involved in combat. In between the super powered fighting, the kids learning to use their powers, the kids all learning the rules of the world they’re in there’s a lot of looking at what it really means to be a super powered kid.
There’s those kids whose powers change their appearance – how many of them have to be home schooled because they’re considered to be too alien to actually be part of the community? How many kids dye their hair or cover their skin to hide some non-human feature? And, as the super power club grows, how much does the culture change that more and more of them stop hiding
Yes, there’s a hefty analogy there. And I’d be much much happier about this hefty, not-subtle analogy if the single LGBT character in this story wasn’t revealed petty much in the epilogue. There isn’t any representation here, which is more than a little annoying (there is a pair of “heterosexual life partners who aren’t lesbian honest”… and I have no idea what is even being attempted here. Just no).
On top of all this we also have the question of super powered people who don’t WANT to fight. Who can actually see a way to use their super powers to the greater benefit of all that doesn’t involve battling other super powered people. Which also comes with the touching story of Claudia, her family and her own struggle with being both immensely powerful, able to help so many – but not WANTING to be a hero.
Claudia is also a recurring POC in the book and it’s a nice touch to see her story expanded beyond what we’ve seen so far. The gathering of super hero kids also has several POC characters among them. But I still hate Chinatown – whyyy do we have the villainous area of the city be China town? Especially since there are no actual Chinese people in this Chinatown! The name is redundant.
We do have two disabled characters – two mentally ill characters in the form of Marcia and Abigail. I’m leery about both of them. Both see them using medication and dealing with their illnesses in different ways. But at the same time they are also depicted as dangerous, unstable and a threat – which is such a common trope.
Of course this all returns to our three heroes, Penny, Claire and Ray and the question – what do they want? This touches back to the eternal question hero vs villain but also goes far more as they work on solo identities and examine their own motivations
But there’s something missing… where’s the fun? Where’s all the zany fun of the past two books? Where’s the fun, amazing inventions from Bad Penny? Where’s the zany hijinks? Where’s the impossible heists that they pull off against all the odds? Where’s the Inscrutable Machine rocking the supervillain-ness and managing to be so much more than the adults imagined? Where’s them trying to be superheroes and having it all go so very very wrong again? Where’s Penny making repeated, awesome villainous speeches as she stands triumphant over all comers?
Where’s the fun? Where’s the whacky hijinks? Where’s the silliness and Lucyfar cheering them on and the candy based weaponry and weird machines with self-destruct buttons everywhere (because there are rules to being a mad scientist!)
The book got a bit more serious, a bit more mature and, probably, grew a lot more substance and power. But it lost something. It lost something joyous and silly and fun. And that was these books – that’s what made this series such a gem, such an unalloyed joy to read. There’s nothing wrong with being silly, and having villains yell “MUAHAHAHAHAHAH” while inventing doomsday machines.
It wasn’t a bad book. Of course it wasn’t. It wasn’t even close to being a bad book. It was great fun, it was a lot of joy. But it wasn’t what I hoped it would be. It wasn’t the immense fun that so characterised this series.