Book Review: Heroine Complex

10 Mar

Heroine Complex

Sarah Kuhn

A while back, there was a kerfuffle over what was true science-fiction storytelling.  Was it hard science-fiction, with the story grounded in hard science, or was it anything with a futuristic spin?  Could science-fiction include a love subplot, could it include a love story with science-fiction trimmings?  There was no good answer, as one might expect, which is probably why the debate was so tedious.  But it is true that if you write a romantic novel in a science-fiction guise, you might alienate readers who wanted a true SF novel rather than Gone With The Wind In Space.

Heroine Complex tries hard to combine a superhero story with what can best be described as a cross between a coming of age story and a romantic story.  It manages to be more of the coming of age story than either of the other two, but there’s too much focus on the other aspects for the story to be truly satisfactory.  The decent aspects of the plot – and the world the author created – are often overshadowed by the storyline itself. 

Several years ago, there was a demonic intrusion in San Francisco.  The aftermath of the invasion left a number of people with superpowers … relatively minor superpowers.  There are only two true superheroes in the universe, Aveda Jupiter and someone who’s name I’ve forgotten.  Aveda is more of a slightly enhanced ninja than anything else, a woman who combines demon-fighting with celebrity. 

The story isn’t about Aveda.  It’s about Evie Tanaka, Aveda’s former childhood best friend and current personal assistant.  Unlike Aveda, who loves the limelight, Evie tries to stay in the shadows, patiently handle her boss’s tantrums and raise her teenage sister Bea.  She is, sadly, very bad at standing up for herself.  She isn’t best pleased when Aveda is injured and she has to stand in for her boss.  Worse, she has a superpower of her own that might be the most dangerous one of all.

My feelings about the story are a little complex.  There are aspects I liked and aspects I disliked, some more than others.  Let me see if I can put them into words.

Right from the start, I simply didn’t like Aveda.  She’s a spoilt little diva, to say the least; she’s a user and, to some extent, an abuser.  The relationship between Aveda and Evie started out well – the childhood flashbacks are surprisingly sweet – but went downhill as they started their shared careers.  By the start of the story, it’s clear they’re heading for a rocky breakup even before Aveda is forced to step back to recover from an injury.  The writer tries hard to justify it – Aveda’s parents regret she isn’t a doctor, which comes across as absurd given how many lives Aveda has saved – but my tolerance for such behaviour is very limited.  She’s the type of person who gets on my nerves very quickly.

Evie is a lot more likable, but – at first – her passivity is just annoying.  Again, there are good reasons for her cramming her emotions into a tight little ball at the back of her mind, but I grew tired of it fairly quickly.  She – and Aveda – read more like schoolgirls than mature women.  Unlike Aveda, however, she develops into a stronger person as the story moves along.

(The writer comments on the relationship between the two here.)

The storyline itself is fairly one-dimensional.  It’s clear how things will develop as the players take their places on the storyboard.  The lover hiding a dark secret, the bratty teenage sister developing a little more common sense (although making bad calls on a regular basis), etc, etc.  There are a bunch of oddities that don’t quite make sense, although not really enough for me to throw up my hands in horror.

Heroine Complex is widely praised for starring Asian-American characters, as opposed to white or black characters.  (It also includes a considerable number of LGBT characters.)  It genuinely does let us see inside their heads, for better or worse, although it does focus on stereotypes more than I would have preferred.  (Aveda’s problems with her parent’s expectations, for example.)  It also manages to remind us that the two main characters are people, with all the wonders and follies of everyone else.  Neither Evie or Aveda is remotely perfect and the book is all the stronger for it. 

That said, the book does touch upon the representation trope.  Aveda was inspired to become a superhero, before she actually got powers, by watching a movie with Asian-American characters.  I’ve never been sure that actually works.  Watching a movie representation of yourself – your race, your class, your water – doesn’t translate into becoming … well, whatever you’re watching.  The characters on scene have a friendly scriptwriter to smooth out the bumps.  One of the reasons I hated Wesley Crusher so much was that he was a staggeringly unrealistic character – he was rewarded for the traits that got me beaten up when I was his age.  Frankly, one should be less concerned with the race (or whatever) of the character or actor and more concerned with how the character works

Overall, Heroine Complex suffers from many problems shared by other first novels.  The author tells a fairly coherent story, but there are mistakes and missteps that suggest she isn’t quite there yet.  Characters act like children – Aveda worries about a zit – or make dumb decisions in the interests of the plot.  It isn’t exactly the superhero or humorous story I was led to expect.  But she’s on the way. 

It wasn’t my cup of tea – I would have preferred more action and adventure to interpersonal activities – but you might like it.  Try the sample here or on the author’s site.

2 Responses to “Book Review: Heroine Complex”

  1. AshleyRPollard March 10, 2020 at 1:22 pm #

    Reminds me of Rachel Bach, who is a much more assured writer who made it her mission to bring romance to SF with here series the Fortune’s Pawn. It was readable enough, and I have no problem with writers writing what they love. Go for it.

    But, when an author goes off on a mission, they lose sight of readers. So for me, I will never buy another one of her books, because she doesn’t write what I want to read.

    So what am I saying here?

    Don’t miss sell your book as being one thing when it’s another. SF can encompass romance, but you better flag it for readers to be able to make the choice beforehand.

  2. PhilippeO March 10, 2020 at 5:27 pm #

    People have all sorts of weird reasons to pick their personal heroes, picking Asian heroes for Asian teenage girls is not bad choice.

    Crusher is created so other character could infodump on him. Hardly anybody pick him as heroes, besides White boys had so many choice of heroes that race is not important part of their identity.

    As a whole, I think Superhero fiction and Post-apocalyptic fiction is separate genres from SF and Fantasy.

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