REVIEW SUMMARY: An excellent turn into Middle Grade novels that explores a well known trope by means of a well drawn central character and plenty of humor.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In an alternate world where superheroes emerged two decades ago, a newly empowered teenager discovers the path to superhero-hood is not what he expected.
PROS:: Strong throughline of plot and character; excellent worldbuilding and extrapolation of a superhero dominated world; excellent secondary character cast; lots of humor.
CONS: Unusual setting (Minneapolis/St. Paul) not quite used fully to advantage; book is firmly in Middle Grade territory in terms of sophistication
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining Superhero tale for younger readers and older ones alike.
Everyone knows about the Hero Bomb that devastated what used to be Minneapolis-St.Paul a couple of decades ago, and led to the rise of superheroes, and Heropolis, a city devoted to them built on the remains of the old Twin Cities. Old News. Every kid wants to be a Mask, or at least play video games where they can pretend to be Captain Commanding, fighting the Fromagier or even his archenemy Spartanicus. 13 year old Evan Quick wants to be a Mask very badly, and he checks daily to see if he has manifested superpowers. When a superhero-supervillain fight brings out his powers for the first time, Evan gets his wish. He is to go to the Academy for Metahumans to learn how to apprentice the superhero trade. However, attendance at the School for Sidekicks is hardly what he expects it to be.
Evan’s story and the revelation of the Masks world is the strongest aspect of the novel. What kid hasn’t wanted to be a superhero, and how much more could and would that desire be if there WERE superheroes in the universe, and even more to the point, if you lived in the actual city that had started the superhero phenomenon on a fateful December day in 1988? Evan’s desire to become a superhero reminded me of Will Stronghold’s similar desire and plight in the movie Sky High. School for Sidekicks, however, transcends that movie by demonstrating, logically, just how a superhero academy would work in practice. The novel practically hums with humor and invention with Evan’s escapades both in the school and in his “apprentice program”. Also layered in are some intimations about what is really going on in this universe. While a more adult novel might have given that more play and focus, here it takes something of a back seat to the more straightforward storyline of Evan’s coming of age.
The secondary characters are a real delight in the novel, too. Sure, Evan gathers together a “Scooby gang” in quick order around him. However, they are a diverse, fractious, and entertaining lot, with real personality and character development. Even more intriguing and well drawn is Foxman, the washed up tech-based superhero that Evan is apprenticed to. With his financial backing and his gadgetry, he comes across as a technopathic version of Batman, whose inventions and gadgets only properly work when he is around, especially when they bend laws of physics. Foxman’s tragic story is slowly revealed through the novel, and frankly, I could happily read an adult novel set in this universe from Foxman’s point of view. I can see, however, that such a story would make it difficult for the author to layer in his brand of comedy and humor. That humor, ranging from the situational to the pratfall, infuses the work delightfully. This is a fun read.
My main disappointment was with the setting of Heropolis. I was delighted at first to discover that School for Sidekicks was set mostly in and around what used to be Minneapolis/St. Paul, and that the inciting incident that had created superheroes had centered around it. This excitement is tempered because I don’t think the unusual setting is quite used to best advantage. There are idiosyncrasies and individuality to Minneapolis and St. Paul and the terrain around it. There are a couple of name drops here and here, but for the most part, the story could really have been set anywhere. While that does allow readers to imagine it happened in their hometown, it robs the novel somewhat of the chance to show off some real Midwestern character and ground it in a place in the same way that, say, Emma Bull’s War For the Oaks does.
The novel is a Middle Grade novel, which may turn off older readers. It’s clear at points where the author could have taken this to a fully adult alternate Superhero verse in the manner of the aforementioned Wild Card series, or Adam Christopher’s Seven Wonders. However, the author reins in the tendencies to go too complex or dark at every turn, and keeps the novel at a fresh, fast read suited for his target audience.For young readers, and for adults who are amenable to reading Middle grade novels, School for Sidekicks is a fun and entertaining and funny superhero novel. Comedy is hard, but McCullough has the knack, and the characterizations and plot to back it up.