Say you're writing a book about a teenage boy. You sit down, close your eyes, and start free-associating:
"Teenage boy. What do I think when I think teenage boy. Boners. Boners for sure, yeah. Aspirations. 'Why are my parents such idiots?' Okay, what else... stuck at home, but almost ready to fly away... good, good... Impatient for more autonomy, afraid of what he might do with it. Poor decision maker. Self-absorbed, defensive. Uncommunicative, distrustful. Wow. Teenage boys are kind of a-holes most of the time, aren't they?"
And I think it's this kind of honest introspection that has led to many of the most believable teenage boy narrators in realistic YA fiction of late. You've heard of the Unreliable Narrator? Well, I'm calling these kids the (Mostly) Unlikeable Narrator.
They make for controversial reads. I just reviewed Violence 101, right? Hamish Graham: extremely hard to love. Jack in The Marbury Lens (my review here) - not unlikeable per se, but I guarantee you'll be frustrated by the choices he makes. Will Grayson (of Will Grayson, Will Grayson) is kind of tiresome to the reader and even to his best friend up until the very end. I was at least 50 pages into Going Bovine before I could have any sympathy for Cameron Smith at all. And NOBODY much cares for Doug, Adam Rex's Fat Vampire.
So here comes Damian Locke, protagonist of The Rise of Renegade X (get a load of that cover - sweet!). Damian lives in a city where superheroes and supervillains are part of the landscape. His mom's a supervillain, a mad scientist who shoots lasers out of her eyes ("I SAID, 'No cookies til after dinner!' and I MEANT IT!" Just kidding, there's no scene like that in the book, but you totally fill in that blank).
Villainy and heroism are inherited traits where Damian comes from, so, even though he's never met his dad, he expects that when he turns sixteen, he's going to be well on his way to a dastardly life of crime. He's looking forward to it, and he's been practicing: even without powers, Damian finds ways to punish his foes and to get his way. He is witty, resourceful, and inventive, but in his hands, those traits are hurtful, scheming, and manipulative.
Dude. Been there. Ouch.
The twist comes when, instead of receiving the expected V for Villain birthmark on his thumb on his sixteenth birthday, Damian's mark comes up X. Meaning that he is a hybrid. Meaning that his dad was a superhero, and that Damian could go either way. This is a beautiful plot driver. Damian gets to be gigantically mad at mom, and when he meets his superhero dad, The Crimson Flash, he gets to not only despise him for being a kitten-rescuing safety-first superhero, but gets to feel superior because he knows his dad did something naughty once. The scenes in which he baits superdad and his step-family are pretty fun.
The superhero / supervillain thing is neat. It gives the author and the reader lots of opportunities to reflect on hypocrisy, accidents of birth, privilege, even race. Can you be evil - and also a good parent? Can you do good deeds but be a jerk? But the book is in no way heavy or profound. It's just a little deeper than it has to be, which is a good thing, a great thing. Damian learns how to stop being quite so self-consciously awful - he learns to forgive, to apologize, and to acknowledge his own weaknesses - but his emotional growth does not bonk you on the head.
I was kept guessing until the very end whether he was going to choose a heroic path or a villainous one, and I'm looking forward to a sequel, which is not always something I say when I've just finished a book with a (Mostly) Unlikeable Narrator.
Review! at Karin's Book Nook.
Another review! at GalleySmith.
And at Kiss the Book, which I don't visit nearly so often as I should. I really appreciate that they note mature (and mature-ish) content, so that I can help parents who care about that kind of stuff make choices.