Not gonna lie, I loved this book.
I knew I would. Secondhand Origin Stories is the story of four teenagers—three, the children of an elite superhero team called the Sentinels, and the fourth as an aspiring would-be member. Now, I’m a sucker for stories that deal with the long-term effects of a world where superheroes are real, so, right out of the gate it’s got that going for it. But really, I bought this book for the incredible diversity represented within the characters, and oh man, it did not disappoint on that front. This book has most of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum represented, plus some good body-diversity going on, plus a number of disabilities, plus a wide range of racial and cultural backgrounds. Several of the identities are also intersectional, and all of these aspects were handled with what looks from the outside like effortless grace.
Which makes sense, because the characters are by far the biggest focus and the biggest strength of the book. I enjoyed spending time with all of them, but if I have to play favorites Opal and Martin are going to win, hands-down. I mean, come on. Someone unapologetically pure and good and noble, plus an artificial (“synthetic”) intelligence? If I have weaknesses in fiction, these have got to be among the top spots.
I also loved the relationships. Stories about superhero teams live and die on group dynamics, and these are great. Both the younger generation and the older one are rich and interesting, and it was so much fun to uncover more and more about the history of the Sentinels as the book went along. This is one of those stories where the past has a distinct impact on how the future is going to unfold, and about the next generation rising up and trying never to repeat the mistakes of those who came before them. It was lovely and inspiring and timely. And it was such a breath of fresh air to read a book where people’s identities were just accepted by most of the people surrounding them, without fanfare or drama. Even when the characters themselves were struggling with a new perception of themselves, that conflict was rarely an external conflict, and I loved that so much. (And when it did cause friction, it never felt over-dramatic or weighed down.)
The structure did surprise me at times, but I wouldn’t call that a flaw. This book broke a lot of normal superhero genre conventions, and it made sense that I wouldn’t be able to predict the plot. It was soft and always character-centric, even when there were occasional explosions or fights. The central plot line was subtle, but always engaging. I appreciated the characters various reactions to violence, as well—it’s so easy in splashy genres like this to get caught up in the special effects and “coolness” of a good fight scene, but this book never takes the easy way out. It always remembers to stay grounded, stay human, and to remember the cost of violence. It wasn’t afraid to toe into what kind if impact that would have on the people committing it, even if their reasons were good.
If I had any complaint about the book, I would have wished for a bit more description at times. It’s possible that I was just reading it too quickly (I did mainline it in about two days), but there were definitely times where it was hard for me to maintain a clear image of the setting and character movements. But honestly, it wasn’t enough to break the enjoyment.
Overall, the book did what all good superhero fiction is supposed to: it took the kind of traumas and injustices that real people are facing today, and set it in an environment that was boisterous and fun and larger-than-life, a safe space to explore the damage that these very real-world issues can cause. It showed people reacting to those situations as shining examples of what people should do when faced with inhumanity. It showed that sometimes doing the right thing is hard and scary, but the effort is worth it. This is the kind of book that inspires. To be better, to do better. To try.
I can’t wait for the sequel.
Secondhand Origin Stories
Opal has been planning to go to Chicago and join the Midwest’s superhero team, the Sentinels, since she was a little kid. That dream took on a more urgent tone when her superpowered dad was unjustly arrested. Now, she wants to be a superhero not only to protect people, but to get a platform to tell the world about the injustices of the Altered Persons Bureau, the government agency for everything relating to superpowers.
But just after Opal’s high school graduation, a supervillain with a jet and unclear motives attacked the downtown home of the Sentinels’. When Opal arrives, she finds a family on the brink of breaking apart. She meets a boy who’s been developing secret (and illegal) brain-altering nanites right under the Sentinel’s noses, another teenage superhero-hopeful who looks suspiciously like a long-dead supervillain, and the completely un-superpowered daughter of the Sentinels’ leader. Can four teens on the fringes of the superhero world handle the corruption, danger, and family secrets they’ve unearthed?