The Fire Inside: Heroine Complex

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

Published: July 5th 2016
Publisher: DAW
Genre(s): Fantasy, Adventure, Superheroes
Format: E-Book
Length: 378 pages

I love stories about people with mundane jobs who exist in the orbit of someone extraordinary – like a personal assistant to a superhero, for example. It’s a fun mental exercise to think about what that might actually be like, what you’d have to deal with when your job function includes placating a petulant heroine when she isn’t out saving lives and stopping evil.

Evie Tanaka is in that exact position when Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn begins. She’s the mousy, reserved personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s Favorite Superhero – previously known as Evie’s childhood friend, Annie.

Evie has no social life outside of work and tries to keep her feelings on clampdown because of a tragedy in her past. It doesn’t help that her mom died a few years back and her father subsequently disappeared on walkabout, so Evie is also responsible for taking care of her bratty teenage sister, Bea.

Evie is just barely holding her life together until Aveda is injured and needs someone to take her place in public appearances. See, Aveda’s superhero powers come from a failed demon invasion that turned into an ongoing demon problem, and she isn’t the only person who was granted powers. Their friend Scott can perform little magic spells, including a glamour that will let Evie impersonate Aveda.

As soon as Evie goes out in public as Aveda, things go off the rails. Demons attack, and Evie is forced to use her own powers – flames that come out of her hands when she is upset or angry. She’d tried to keep them inside like her emotions because she was afraid of what she might do, but as soon as she lets them out, she finds it much harder to keep anything inside.

Heroine Complex is ultimately a story about a closed-off, repressed young woman learning to trust her own emotions and believe in herself. It’s also funny, full of well-drawn characters, and genuinely entertaining.

When I first picked it up and started reading, I assumed that it was a young adult novel, partially because of the cover, but also because of the writing style, which made the characters seem young. However, as I kept reading, it became obvious that the characters were all in their late twenties. Then there was the first of several fairly hot sex scenes, which made me realize that I’d been reading an urban fantasy all along.

This genre confusion didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment of the book, but it did make me wonder why I immediately assumed it was a young adult novel. I really like the cover design, but maybe the cartoony style made me jump to conclusions.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend Heroine Complex. It’s the first book in a trilogy, each of which focuses on a different girl in the group – Evie, then Aveda, and then finally Bea. I’ll probably pick up the next two sometime soon.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Wayward Volume One: Pretty But Empty

Wayward Volume 1: String TheoryWayward Volume One: String Theory

Story: Jim Zub
Line Art: Steve Cummings

Published: April 7, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Adventure, Magic
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

The art in Wayward Volume One is probably the best part of an otherwise cliché book. The backgrounds are gritty and realistic in a way that feels completely grounded, and the character art is bright and stylized. Unfortunately, all of that beautiful design is in service of story about yet another teenager discovering hidden magical powers and using them to fight monsters.

Rori Lane is half-Irish and half-Japanese, which means she speaks the language but has a head of bright red hair that makes her stand out in a Japanese crowd. The story opens when she moves to Japan to live with her mother after a (so far unexplained) falling out with her father. Her mother works long hours and is hardly ever home, but Rori seems to have nowhere else to go, so the arrangement works.

There are the occasional interesting details, but they feel more like window-dressing than real characterization. Rori’s mixed heritage means she’ll never really fit in, no matter how well she learns to speak Japanese. The author plays with that theme, but doesn’t dig deeper than a moment where her teacher tells her to dye her hair black so that people won’t think she’s a troublemaker. We also learn that Rori is a secret cutter, but the revelation feels completely arbitrary and gratuitous because it doesn’t have any impact on the story. Ultimately it just feels like a cynical attempt to add depth to the story.

The other characters aren’t given much more depth than their magical abilities, but at least Ayane – a magical “cat girl” – is entertaining and strange. The story rushes through Rori discovering her powers and meeting other powered characters so that it can get to the fight scenes. I don’t necessarily prefer stories that dwell on characters discovering a secret world in plain sight, but Rori starts out the book lost in another country and ends up leading a team of magical teenagers in a very short amount of time. Additionally, the dialogue is oftentimes very wooden, reading as if Zub is trying to imitate English poorly translated from Japanese.

Ultimately the art and colors are the only things I actually liked about this book. Without the art, you have nothing but a story that relies on well-worn tropes, limited characterization, and dialog that is both wooden and unnecessarily vulgar. I doubt I’ll pick up another volume.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

Discount ArmageddonPublished: March 6, 2012
Publisher: DAW
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Format: eBook
Length: 368 pages

Discount Armageddon is the story of Verity Price, a blonde twenty-something cryptozoologist and recent transplant to New York City. She pays the bills by working as a waitress in a strip club, supports the family business by working to help the local populations of cryptids – monsters to the unenlightened – and secretly dreams of making it big on the ballroom dancing competition circuit. She hates public transportation, instead getting around by running parkour-style across the city rooftops, all while armed to the teeth with every kind of weapon she can hide under her skimpy waitress uniform. Oh, and her roommates are a colony of talking mice that venerate her every act with religious celebrations and feasts.

Things in the city are going swimmingly for Verity until the day she finds herself accidentally hanging from a snare set by a member of a monster-hunting sect called the Covenant. The Price family’s ancestors were part of the Covenant, but broke with the party line and decided to start helping cryptids instead of hunting them into extinction. Naturally, this didn’t endear them to the Covenant, and the Prices have been in hiding ever since. Complicating the situation is the fact that this Covenant member, Dominic, is strikingly handsome when he isn’t indiscriminately hunting and killing cryptids. Verity isn’t too happy about Dominic’s presence in the city, but when cryptid girls start disappearing and she hears credible rumors of a dragon – long though to be extinct – living under the city, they form an uneasy truce to stop the beast and sparks start flying.

In broad outlines Verity’s story feels familiar. It has the standard trappings of the urban fantasy genre: a secret world, hidden in plain sight, a main character with a special connection to that world, and a romance storyline involving a bad boy love interest who just needs a little redemption to make him boyfriend material. What makes it stand out are the unique details that McGuire works into the mix.

The mice in particular add a good bit of humor to the proceedings. They have dozens (if not hundreds) of religious ceremonies, all named for mundane events in Verity’s life, and all celebrated with a fervor that makes it difficult for Verity to have visitors. I also liked that there isn’t a single vampire or werewolf in the book. There are creatures who can switch between human and animal forms, but they all feel like off-the-beaten path choices, like the Japanese tanuki and an Indian creature called a madhura. Additionally, Verity’s background as a cryptozoologist isn’t just window-dressing; an important plot point revolves around actual biological processes becoming evident in one of the creatures she runs across.

The only real criticism I can come up with is that although title is catchy, I’m not really sure what it has to do with the actual story. In any case, Discount Armageddon is the first book in a new ongoing series for McGuire, and I look forward to picking up the future volumes. I’m also excited about reading her other books. She’s Hugo-nominated for her work as Mira Grant, and I’ve heard great things about her other urban fantasy series, the October Daye books. I get the impression that McGuire likes working with familiar tropes and genres while subverting them just enough to make them feel fresh and entertaining.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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