Novels about spies and superheroes often converge in a familiar Venn diagram. Alter egos, covert operations, gadgets, megalomaniacal villains, weapons of mass destruction, and secret lairs are some of the tropes shared by these two genres. If you like entertainment with a dash of adventure and espionage, there’s very little difference between Nick Fury and James Bond, Natasha Romanoff and Elizabeth Jennings, and Bobbi Morse and Emma Peel.
Author Beth McMullen clearly understands the link between spies and superheroes because she’s having a lot of fun with it in her latest book. Seventh-grader Abigail “Abby” Hunter is shocked to discover that her top-tier New England preparatory academy is actually a secret spy school for girls (like Russia’s Black Widow program but a whole lot sunnier). “This place is a secret breeding ground for spies!” cries Abby in disbelief.
Even more shocking, Abby finds out that her mother is a highly regarded secret agent. Her mom even has a very superhero-like name. Jennifer Hunter is known around the globe as Teflon because she can walk into the worst situations and come out clean. She has a reputation for being hard-core and amazing, and her colleagues describe her as Superman and Spider-Man “or some awesome hybrid of the two.”
In fact, throughout the novel, the author freely namechecks a sundry of famous superheroes like Batman, Black Widow and others. Even when she’s not being explicit, she acknowledges her source material.
For example, the motto at Mrs. Smith’s Spy School For Girls is Non tamen ad reddet (“Not to take, but to give back”). It’s basically a fancy way to paraphrase Spider-Man’s memorable and oft-quoted motto. “We strive each day to make the world a better place,” says the school’s headmaster. “We aren’t just about ourselves but rather about the greater good.”
Despite her mom’s rep, Abby herself has no special training or aptitude for spying. One of her teachers even calls her a “chronic user of poor judgment.” But never mind. Now that she knows her pedigree, she’s determined to be the best teenage girl spy she can be (watch out Kim Possible!). After completing her first off-campus assignment, an ally assesses her performance thusly: “You did okay tonight, if we overlook all the parts where you screwed up.”
Things get better (and worse!) before the novel ends. “You’re just like your mom,” says the villain in his final showdown with Abby, “always messing with things that have nothing to do with you.” He’s just a mid-level minion, but he’s right. Even though she was struggling with a severe spy learning curve, Abby was exactly like her mom. “I don’t quit,” she says. Stay turned for further adventures.
[Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls / By Beth McMullen / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781481490207]