2023’s Girl Squad Volta is Book One of Maya Lin Wang’s Volta Academy Chronicles magical-girl series.
Bright, athletic, and ambitious, Laura Cohen is clearly destined for great things. She far outshines her best friend, Wren Li-Lazzaro. And yet … Wren is the protagonist of this book.
Friends since grade school, the two teens are about to enter high school. Laura is determined to leave behind the childish hobby she shared with Wren — writing a superhero comic — and reinvent herself as the alpha girl she believes she deserves to be. If this means befriending high-status mean girls Taylor and Ashleigh and dumping Wren, so be it.
Wren tries to keep up the friendship, but her attempts to interest Laura look rather like stalking. Small wonder that Laura sees Wren as an impediment or that when they face each other in a martial arts contests, Laura does not hesitate to deliver a humiliating beating.
New girl Jacqueline “Jackie” March isn’t actually a transfer student. As Wren discovers, Jackie is an extra-dimensional magical girl (or Volta) searching for the high-potential candidate who is believed to be attending Laura and Wren’s school. Jackie doesn’t have a name but there is only one plausible candidate: Laura Cohen, who seems to be more than halfway to being a superhero just on pure grit.
While recruiting Laura for extra-dimensional magical-girl school would be a welcome development, Jackie’s more immediate goal is to save Laura from becoming a snack for malevolent magical girl Shademare. Draining unwary magical girls of their power is a much faster method of self-improvement than sustained effort over years of training.
Nothing for it but for Laura to discover her inner power and save herself. When Laura shows no signs of doing that, it’s up to unimpressive Wren to save the friend who no longer likes her.
This is the second Wang novel I’ve reviewed. The other, The Sword of Kaigen, was published under the M. L. Wang byline. I am not sure how I will tackle the author byline issue raised by one author using several names. Surely this problem has come up before1?
The opening chapter gives away what one might have expected to be the big reveal at the end: Wren herself is, no surprise, a magical girl and one who doesn’t hesitate to answer the call of destiny once she double-checks the address and then verifies to make sure it wasn’t misaddressed2. The plot isn’t leading to a twist. It’s the story of Wren morphing from hapless schoolgirl to magical girl facing off against a more powerful enemy.
One wants as much contrast as possible for such transformations — just ask Peter Parker — so Wren begins as a person who is not very good at those things society values, whose one clear talent is dismissed as childish, someone whose very identity as an adopted Chinese-American is open to doubt because every Han Chinese person who meets her doubts that she’s actually Chinese3. She doesn’t stack up well next to the superlative Laura.
Some readers may be astonished to discover that this magical girl novel, one of a genre in which often unremarkable girls discover within themselves vast reserves of previously unsuspected potential before saving the day at the last possible moment, is a wish fulfillment novel4. Well, now you know.
Girl Squad Volta hits all the required notes for the first volume in a magical girl series, but I found it all a bit underwhelming. The twists aren’t that twisty and the prose is just acceptable. It may be that I am not the intended audience for this novel; the people for whom it is intended might enjoy it more than I did.
Girl Squad Volta is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), and here (Amazon UK). I did not find it at Barnes & Noble or Book Depository and I cannot check Chapters-Indigo because their site is down. It may be that the author’s publishing arrangement is exclusive to Amazon.
1: Editor’s note: indexers do this with see also, but perhaps that doesn’t work with your blog.
2: There are parallels here to The Oddfits’ Murgatroyd Floyd, who starts out his book with an utterly sad, despairing self-image.
3: As is pointed out in the book, Han Chinese people are not the only kind of Chinese people. Still, it would be just like Wren’s mother to tell her adopted daughter a story about her background that her mother thought Wren would want to hear (she’s told she’s Chinese, but perhaps she’s not …). And perhaps in volume 2 it will turn out that Wren is the last daughter of Krypton or some such; if so, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised.
4: Even Wren compares Laura to a Mary Sue.