Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I was amped for this book from the first I heard about it. Alas, that excitement didn’t long survive contact with the actual pages. Heroine Complex has a lot of interesting ideas, but I just didn’t enjoy Sarah Kuhn’s plotting, characterization, or writing style. In other words, this book didn’t just miss the mark; it didn’t even get on the board.
Content warning in this book, and discussion in my review, for acemisia.
Evie Tanaka is the personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s exclusive demon ass-kicker and superhero. Evie and Aveda have been friends since middle school (not that anyone is supposed to know that version of the story). Ever since a failed demonic invasion eight years ago, some San Franciscans have had extremely minor supernatural abilities. With smaller portals opening up periodically and expelling less impressive demons into our world, Aveda has honed herself into a fairly impressive martial machine—with the diva ego to match. Only Evie is patient enough to absorb the Aveda Jupiter Temper Tantrums. But when circumstances force Evie to step up and pose as Aveda, just as a new demonic threat seems to be emerging, Evie finds herself questioning pretty much everything in her life.
Heroine Complex borrows a lot of the cartoon tropes from the comic form that birthed its superhero genre. This is a world that doesn’t make much sense. And I’m not even talking about the cupcake-shaped demons, whatever. San Francisco has a demon-fighting superhero, yet the only media that seems to cover her is a minor blogger?? Maisie is everywhere Aveda Jupiter goes, and it seems like other media occasionally turn up, but Maisie’s channel is the only one we’re tuned to. (And what’s with those passive-aggressive inserts from Shasta, with faux-banter from Maisie, at the end of the articles we’re shown? Blah.) The City of San Francisco is apparently happy that a single vigilante deals with the demons (who, admittedly, don’t seem all that threatening on a grand scale but will fuck your shit up if you’re personally around a demon portal). There are a few mentions of insurance, and some excerpts from material by a Demon Tours company. By and large, though, Kuhn does little to explore the longer-term ramifications of a demon portal changing the nature of our existence. San Francisco is apparently just so unremarkable that a demon portal opening in it isn’t a big deal around the rest of the world.
The cartoony nature of the book continues with its characters. The secret when it comes to quirkiness is that only one or two characters can be “quirky.” Yet pretty much every character in Heroine Complex is quirky in some way. In an attempt to make her characters diverse and interesting, Kuhn instead imbues them with very generic, sometimes even inconsistent traits. Aveda is the high-strung powerhouse. Lucy is the badass fighter who never fails to remind us she’s a lesbian and constantly inquires about Evie’s sex life. Nate is the overly analytical man/hunk/love interest. Bea is the smart-talking teenager (“totes” and “frakballs” are about the extent of her teenager vocabulary though) who begins the book seeking alcohol and ends up being some kind of autodidactic social media genius. Evie eats only Lucky Charms (not kidding).
And then the villains, Shasta and Maisie, are an inept duo whose comedy makes me cringe. I mentioned the awkward interplay at the end of Maisie’s blog posts already. Shasta is an unremarkable, over-the-top, classically incompetent villain. It seems (and I’m always about giving the benefit of the doubt) that Kuhn is trying to lean into and lampshade these tropes. But … there just doesn’t feel like there’s any payoff there, because this isn’t a spoof.
I want to be clear: I think Kuhn does try to give her characters depth, particularly when it comes to Nate’s and Aveda/Evie’s backstories. I just don’t think these attempts work as well as they should.
Here’s a little praise, though, for Evie’s character. I think it’s probably tempting, especially if you’re not enjoying the book like I wasn’t, to label Evie’s dysfunctional relationship with Aveda as unrealistic. Who would stick around and let themselves be pushed around like Aveda does with Evie? Actually, this felt like the most real, most poignant part of the book for me. Especially when Kuhn caps it off with a confessional heart-to-heart where Aveda reveals her most vulnerable thoughts regarding Evie. That is the moment when they are both the most human, most real characters in this book. I wish I had seen more of that, or if it is actually there all the way through, that it weren’t buried under so many comic book tropes and clunky exposition.
So, yeah, Evie’s character growth I can get on board with, but there’s one red flag I want to raise: the way Kuhn describes Evie’s sexual behaviour. Evie is big about repressing her emotions to the point that she avoids sexual relationships. Early in the book she refers to her “Dead-Inside-o-Tron” keeping her sex drive in check, and how this appears to be malfunctioning in the case of Nate. Let’s set aside the incredible predictability of her and Nate’s romance for the moment. Let’s not dwell on how annoyingly frequently this book talks about Evie having sex (I’m not repulsed by sex scenes or discussions of sex by any means in my book, but these characters just don’t shut up about it). But comparisons of not experiencing sexual attraction to being “dead inside” are not comedic; they are offensive to asexual people. At best this is erasure; really, though, it’s saying that not experiencing sexual attraction means you’re “broken” or “abnormal.” To be clear: I’m not upset that Evie and Nate are in lust with each other and get it on every second chapter or whatever. That’s all to the good. But the idea that Evie being lustful over Nate and engaging in a sexual relationship with her somehow fixes her? That I can’t get behind. There is nothing wrong with people who don’t experience sexual attraction.
You might be wondering by now why I didn’t stop reading early on. That’s a legitimate question that I asked of myself at the time. Truthfully, I wanted to know how the story ended, and part of me still hoped for a little redemption from the writing. I don’t regret finishing the book, yet I don’t feel it redeemed itself either. The plot sputters and fizzles over a false climax then limps on to an unsatisfying, unspectacular actual climax. Kuhn haphazardly raises and then handwaves obstacles as the plot requires: first Bea not being in school is an issue, then when it doesn’t need to be an issue, suddenly Bea has homeschooled herself out of the predicament. How convenient. There’s a lack of any real tension here, despite the high stakes (their very lives) the nature of the conflict demands.
Heroine Complex is messy. It is wrapped in the fun, flashy exterior of cartoonish tropes that disguise this mess in some ways—cartoon logic is supposed to be messy. The more I mull it over, though, the more I consider the writing and plot and the characters, and the less I like this book. What began as a mediocre experience inexorably declined into dull, then dissatisfying, and ended somewhere in disgruntlement. Once again, I tend to love the idea of a superhero novel more than I like the actual novels themselves.