Hugo reading 2018: Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn

Sarah Kuhn provided a copy of her novel, Heroine Complex, and it is enormous fun. It straddles a few different subgenres – I feel like it’s primarily a new adult coming of age sort of story, but the setting is urban fantasy / super hero comic, and it also has strong romantic elements.  Ultimately, though, the novel is about friendship, found family, and acceptance.

Our protagonist is Evie Tanaka.  She works as an executive assistant for her best friend, local superhero Aveda Jupiter (formerly Annie Chang). Aveda has been saving San Francisco from demons since the portal first opened eight years ago.  Incursions since that time have been frequent, but fairly low level – which is fortunate, because so are Aveda’s superpowers.  Primarily, Aveda uses her martial arts skills, her charisma, and her determination to be perfect at everything she does.

The amount of work Aveda puts into being the superhero who can save San Francisco is admirable, but it doesn’t stop her from being an utter nightmare to work for. When she sprains her ankle at training after throwing a tantrum over a pimple, she insists that she can neither go to the awards night to which she has been invited nor cancel it – and instead coerces Evie into pretending to be her (with a little help from their friend Scott’s ability to create glamours). Of course, demons promptly appear at the ceremony, and Evie finds herself having to fight them and thus deal with her own, unwanted superpower.  Also, the demons seem to be evolving, Evie’s little sister is wagging school and getting drunk with her babysitters and Aveda is finding that she doesn’t really like having her best friend outshine her.  And did I mention that Evie’s powers seem to get more unpredictable when she is under stress?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. The characters were well-drawn, and I liked the theme of found family. And really, any book that starts off with a superheroine fighting off flying, fanged, demon-possessed cupcakes in a cake shop is already going to be ticking a lot of boxes for me. If I must look at the novel critically, I’d have to say that I saw several of the plot twists coming – but then, I do read widely in the YA, urban fantasy and romance genres, and in any case, the fun was less in the destination than the journey. I especially enjoyed the relationships between the various characters, particularly that between Evie and Aveda.  It felt very real, from their background as the only two Asian kids in their primary school, bonding over the mockery they received over their lunchboxes, to the way their roles were set early on in ways they weren’t always consciously aware of, and the friction that ensued when Evie was no longer happy with her role. This felt like a very real friendship to me.

I enjoyed the other characters too – Aveda’s trainer, Lucy, who uses karaoke to pick up girls (and who takes far too much interest in Evie’s love life); Evie’s cranky, clever 16-year-old sister Bea; Nate, Team Aveda’s doctor/scientist, who is also clever and cranky and distractingly hot; Scott, who should be hot, but inexplicably isn’t; and the terrible tabloid blogger and her sidekick.  All the interpersonal relationships gave the impression of having existed well before the book started – they had a level both of closeness and of grown-in-assumptions and roles that felt very true to life.

Basically, I loved this book and will be looking for the sequel. I suspect it’s a bit too fluffy to win its category, but it is clever and character-driven and funny and feminist and the perfect antidote to space-slavery-dystopias. I do wonder, sometimes, why I do these Hugo reads – so many of the books are so very much not for me – but every so often one discovers an author one wants to follow, and that’s what has happened here. Sarah Kuhn is going to the top of my ballot.

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