Book Review: Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Superpowers
Series: Book 1 of Heroine Complex
Publisher: DAW (July 5, 2016)
Length: 368 pages
I badly wanted to like this book, but its style was just completely wrong for my tastes, a model example of the classic “It’s not you, book–it’s me.” In these cases I always struggle to write my reviews, because I know what I perceive as flaws are in fact really selling points that will be very attractive to others. They say good content will always have an audience though, which is why I’m not too concerned about this book’s chances of finding success with readers everywhere, but I confess it didn’t really work as well for me, in spite of its huge charisma.
First, a little bit about Heroine Complex: The book tells the story of two best friends—one is a flashy superheroine, and the other is her quiet personal assistant. Ever since they were five years old, our protagonist Evelyn Tanaka has always found herself in Annie Chang’s shadow, and that’s become especially true now that Annie has become Aveda Jupiter, savior of San Francisco. It isn’t easy keeping up with a superheroine, or putting up with her epic tantrums whenever things don’t go her way, but Evie always tells herself she doesn’t mind the work. After all, Annie-now-Aveda is her oldest, most loyal friend. She’s been there for Evie through all the bad times, rescuing her whenever she needed the help and emotional support. Evie figures the least she can do to repay Aveda is to give her boss anything she wants, and do whatever she commands.
But then one day, Aveda injures herself while fighting cupcake demons, suffering a sprain which would put her out of commission for at least four to six weeks. Refusing to accept being out of the spotlight for that long, Aveda convinces Evie to act as her double and make public appearances in her stead. True to form, Evie caves spectacularly to her friend’s demands, never mind that she has no experience schmoozing at glitzy events, or fighting portal demons for that matter. In fact, Evie has spent most of her adult life actually trying to hide her own superpower, which she fears would be dangerous if she ever let it out.
What can I say? The whole superheroes meets The Devil Wears Prada premise wrapped up in an urban fantasy package was certainly irresistible to me, and at first I genuinely thought Heroine Complex would be right up my alley. And indeed, I would have loved it, I think, if some of the elements which first attracted me to this book–the humor, the action, the snark, etc.–hadn’t been so exaggerated and over-the-top. Another key problem I had with this book was how cartoonish the setting felt. UF has always been one of my favorite genres because I love the way it reimagines our world with supernatural aspects in it, while still maintaining the realism and believability of the setting. In contrast, Sarah Kuhn’s San Francisco and all the characters populating it are more like comic caricatures, and her writing style also reflects this general vibe.
By the way, I use descriptions like “cartoonish” and “comic” because I believe none of this is by accident. I get the feeling that this is exactly what the author is aiming for, but I really have to be in the right mood for this tongue-in-cheek style, and I guess I just wasn’t.
Not surprisingly then, story and characters are also ultra-predictable. Again, I know all that is part and parcel of this particular narrative style, but it still nettled. Evie, despite her quirkiness and ebullience, comes across too bland and two-dimensional. She and her friends are like walking clichés playing their assigned roles and speaking their hammy lines. The romance also felt a bit tacked on and flat, since whenever Evie and her love interest Nate shared a scene, their relationship only seemed to have two settings: sniping-at-each-other mode, or can’t-keep-our-hands-off-each-other mode. I did think the story was fast-paced and fun though, and the plot had its flashes of brilliance every now and then, but it simply wasn’t enough to keep me energized for nearly 400 pages.
Major kudos for the Asian American superheroine protagonists though, even if I could have done without a couple of the stereotypes, like how Asian parents only care about their kids’ grades and would disavow us if we didn’t get into med school, and my eyes just about bugged out of my head when I read that part where Evie said she was used to not letting herself feel because she’s Asian and knows all about emotional repression. Yes, I realize there’s usually a nugget of truth to stereotypes and I’m aware this is all done in the spirit of good fun, but seeing them propagate even for the sake of humor still makes me a tad uncomfortable especially since I’ve had to face many of these same misconceptions in my life (“You’ll want your daughters to be doctors, right?” Even when said in jest, this one is my own personal bane.)
Overall, I know I’m in the minority with my lukewarm reaction, so if you think you’ll enjoy the story’s style or the type of humor I described, then you should definitely give this book a try. Heroine Complex accomplishes what it sets out to do, and it does all of it very well, even if it did turn out not to be the kind of book for me.