The pinnacle of Schwab

There are a few authors whose books I pretty consistently love and will always read, and V. E. (Victoria) Schwab is one of them…with a caveat. She writes adult books and she writes for young adults, and I am passionate about most of the adult ones but not so much for the YA, which is too bad, considering YA is my “specialty” (having been a teen librarian for all those years). I can’t quite figure out how someone can be brilliant for one age group and less so for another, but there it is; although I like a few of her YA books quite a bit, there are others I found somewhat “meh.” For instance, although I enjoyed the Cassidy Blake series (meant for middle-schoolers), both the Archived and the Monsters of Verity novels left me wishing they had better world-building, less confusion, and more logic. I should say, though, that there are many teens who absolutely love her YA series, so perhaps Schwab is actually good at gauging how to write for teens, and I am just not that demographic and should quit talking!

For me, the two adult series where she really shines are Shades of Magic and this week’s re-reads, Villains, which begins with one of my all-time favorite books, Vicious.

Vicious turns everything you think you believe on its head, in terms of likeable versus unlikeable protagonists (antagonists?), because it has one who is set up as a hero but who gives you the heebie-jeebies, and another, a supposed villain, who you root for even though in some ways he is a distinctly unpleasant person. Moral ambiguity is definitely the theme.

Vicious is elegant and spare, with just the right amount of detail and not an ounce more or less. It has an array of fantastic characters who come across fully fleshed out with only a few sentences of description. I can’t believe it was Schwab’s first book for adults—it’s masterful. I have read it at least three times (maybe four?), and its sequel, Vengeful, is equally as compelling. I wrote a review of the two books here, if you’d like to know more about them (before reading them yourself!). The other thing to know is that there is a third book coming. I don’t know when—Schwab has gone off in five different directions since she wrote this, from her massive The Invisible Life of Addie Larue to her ExtraOrdinary comics series (based on the Villains universe) and also the first book of a new YA series, Gallant—but we do know it will be called Victorious, and that there are already 25,000 people on Goodreads who have put it on their “TBR” list as soon as it hits the bookstores (no pressure, Vee!). I hope she doesn’t delay too much longer…

Diversity and superheroes

I just finished reading two books of a planned trilogy by April Daniels. I would slot them as young adult although, in the area of superheroes, fandom seemingly crosses all borders, including that of age. But since the protagonist is 15 when book #1 opens, and comes with a lot of the issues teens encounter, labeling them YA is plausible, whether or not the author intended that.

Dreadnought (Nemesis #1) follows the adventures of Danny Tozer. When the book opens, Danny is Daniel, an unhappy teen girl trapped in a boy’s body, with parents who adamantly refuse to see her for who she is or even contemplate the possibility of a transgender future. A miracle is shortly to follow, however; while hanging out alone behind the mall, Danny ends up on-scene at the murder of Dreadnought, a powerful superhero, and as he dies he passes the “mantle” of his powers to Danny. What comes with those powers is a transformation so epic that Danny’s life will be forever changed—she is gifted with a girl’s body as part of her new identity. Although becoming a superhero ought to be the most amazing thing that happens to a person, it is the realization of her secret dream of manifesting as female that is the overwhelmingly joyous news.

But Dreadnought was taken down by a “black cape” named Utopia, who shouldn’t have had enough power to faze him, let alone kill him, and now Danielle has to figure out how that happened and foil Utopia in her grand plan for the destruction of humanity. And she will have to do so while confronting the prejudice and paranoia of her parents, whose dearest wish is to find a “cure” that will turn her back into “their son,” a disillusionment regarding her best friend, who turns out to be an objectifyer when Danny turns into a girl (hey, eyes up here, dude) and, of course, her fellow superheroes in New Port, some of whom also have a problem with Dreadnought suddenly being a 15-year-old petite blonde.

This is such a fresh, wonderful, fun, and yet serious discussion of transgender in the context of fiction! The author shares the identity of the underrepresented and marginalized group in question, and in this series, the authenticity shines through. There is something for everyone here: While those who enjoy the cool powers, the fight scenes, and the trope of conflict between good and evil so characteristic of superhero books can revel in those things, there is also a lot of all-too-mundane psychology tied up with the issues of misogyny, abuse, identity, gender vs. sexuality, you name it. In addition to the transgender nature of the protagonist, we have her lesbian love interest, a non-binary superhero colleague, multiple people of color, and a villainous trans-exclusionary “feminist.” But none of these (well, with the possible exception of Graywytch, who turns into kind of a cipher as the plot progresses) is a stereotype: Danny runs the gamut of emotions—brave, terrified, powerful, weak, utterly secure, and totally lacking in self-confidence. The side characters are equally well developed, especially those who are in her inner circle of supporters and colleagues. The world-building is thorough, and especially enjoyable is all the focus on “hypertech” inventions.

I enjoyed the first book a little bit more than the second, simply because I love a good origin story, and Dreadnought dealt much more with the emotions and challenges of a 15-year-old transgender girl who is suddenly in the spotlight as the heroine of the city and has to work through all her personal issues with family and friends while simultaneously maintaining a public image and fighting crime. Sovereign landed more heavily on the superhero role and focused less on the personal, although it almost made up for it with the relationship dynamics among the main characters, including a little romance. And the ongoing question of the wisdom of taking a survivor of childhood abuse with anger issues and encouraging them to beat up on people (well, admittedly bad guys, but still) is also a powerful theme.

Having read these two, I would have felt completely satisfied with a duology; but Daniels is writing a third book to wrap up the secondary plot of Nemesis, and I look forward to reading it. This is a solid recommendation for a positive and delightful treatment of diversity within a fictional shell, not to mention a dynamic story line and an enjoyable read! I would suggest this for teens 14 and up, plus anybody who enjoys a good superhero tale. To discover other diverse books, visit