Well, as of this Thursday, as friend of the Prattle Kelly Thompson has now posted the entirety of the first part of her forthcoming book, The Girl Who Would Be King, I figured now was a splendid time to look at the entirety of the first part in a more complete form and treat it more as an analysis rather than a plug.
Why do that, you may ask? Because The Girl Who Would Be King (hereafter referred to as Girl in the name of staving off carpal tunnel one more day) is quite worthy of a closer look, even in its incomplete form, it's a very interesting book that manages to juggle it's main plot with several layers of metatextual commentary on the nature of superheroes, the symbiotic relationship between superhero and super villain, the duality of superheroes, the different phases of superheroes that have been in vogue over the generations, some meditation on gruesome violence in the name of "realism," and even adds in a few metaphors for growing up and becoming an adult.
You're lucky if you can get one of those layers in a story, and usually writing that tries to do so much usually suffers in one department or another, but what makes Girl such a great read is that for the most part, all of this is happening invisibly around you as you read the story. At no time is a metaphor dropped on one and the entire story grinds to a halt so we can say "oooh, look at that metaphor." The plotting is handled with a style I have called "deft"--it doesn't feel very heavy-handed as one would expect superhero stories of this style would tend to be. Moreover, this doesn't feel like a deconstruction of superhero tropes as much as it is playing with them--seeing how they might work in different contexts, both metaphorical and literal. The different levels are there for people who know this stuff, but the story can be enjoyed on its own merits just as well. It's very rare for someone's fifth novel to work as well as all that, never mind their first.
So let's talk about the plot, and we'll try to touch on the themes as we go. I'd like to be as comprehensive as I can, but I will inevitably miss some things, partly to avoid spoilers, partly because if I did, this might be longer than the actual book, and partly because it behooves you to read the thing and get some of this stuff for yourself. Our story begins with two events-- seven years ago in Pennsylvania, Bonnie Braverman is the sole survivor of a car wreck that kills her parents. In present-day Nevada, Lola LeFever is putting the finishing touches on making her mother's death look like an accident in the early beginnings of a quest for power. Bonnie spends the next few years of her life in an orphanage, so traumatized by the experience that she never talks for the next seven years. Lola, meanwhile, seems to think that the world is hers for the taking, and as we'll see, she has reason to think so, even if there's a nagging feeling this might all be part of a cycle older than both of them . . .
From the beginning, each chapter alternates--Bonnie's story, then Lola's. This plays up the duality of the two characters and their symbiotic relationship with each other (as characters in the main story as well as protagonist/antagonist) which given us plenty of time to get to know them as characters and gives Thomspon some time to play around with various tropes of superheroes.
Bonnie is as superheroic as you can get, but she's more a gestalt of different superhero types. There's the super-powerful wish-fulfillment hero who only wants to Do Good Deeds and help people. When that turns out to be less simple than she imagines, she becomes a early Marvel-esque hero with feet of clay, forever trying to be normal, but what ever purpose she has makes that difficult, if not outright impossible. Through her, one of the themes of the story (trying to live the life you want vs. what responsibilities and other things oblige you to do) becomes clear.
Lola is all ambition, and her hunger for power drives her arc relentlessly. Much like Bonnie, Lola goes through a journey through the various stages of supervillainy (not unlike the seven ages of man, in a sense) beginning as a thrillseeker, becoming a street-level criminal, running with a gang, trying to run the gang, and ultimately metamorphoses into something a lot more ambitious and a lot more deadly--a villainess on Lex Luthor's level, who is so dedicated to proving her superiority that material gain is secondary to all other goals. It's this final turn towards god-tier super-villainy (well, close to. For all I know in part 2 she could get to Thanos level and start declaring war on personified abstract concepts. It wouldn't surprise me.) which ultimately sets up part 2, leaving things at a place where confrontation is all but inevitable and the stored up potential energy of the story promises an explosive conclusion.
The episodic nature of Part 1 gives us a chance to know these characters as people, to spend some time learning what drives them and what they respond to, which grounds things in reality, but in a way that makes the extraordinary doings of the characters that much more. Bonnie learns about loss and rejection, Lola finds love momentarily, but it all goes wrong in a horrible way. There's a subtle thread through this bit that while we follow their stories, we're also following the changing mood of superhero comics, from youthful innocence, to grim adolescence, to darker adulthood, which makes for an interesting parallel to the whole "their journey is a metaphor for growing up" subtext in the book as well.
Speaking of being a reflection about the darkening of superhero comics in our time, I should point out that Thompson pulls no punches with the violence in the book, however, she equally pulls no punches with the consequences of said violence, which elevates it above the usual arm-ripping gorefest that modern superhero comics can sometimes be. While Bonnie and Lola are essentially indestructible and able to heal from wounds that would kill an ordinary person--it's a very unpleasant process, and it's played as such. None of this "Wolverine gets a spear through his chest, gets Jubilee to yank it out, and is fine for the rest of the issue" stuff here. I think by playing it out with that kind of conscientiousness, it elevates it past being merely exploitative.
Now, you may think I'm laying it on a bit thick here, but no--the book really has that level of density to it. What makes it such a notable achievement is that with all these levels, density, and metaphors, the story moves like greased lighting. I am in awe of the efficiency and speed that this thing moves at--you're at the end of the first book before you know it and you absorb all this stuff without it being overt--it's all there in the background and as you follow the trail more and more it clicks into place in the back of your mind. It doesn't feel leaden or decompressed at all, and that alone is a testament to Thompson's skills as a writer. For all the hillion jillion words I've slung in Girl's direction, there's not a lot of fat on it, texturally. I never felt like there was a scene that was self-indulgent or spinning its wheels--she keeps the plot moving at a very fast pace, which probably makes the finish of part 1 even more effective.
This is shaping up to be something special. It's intelligent, has compelling characters, a fascinating mystery at the heart of it, works on multiple levels, and balances its formal tricks with a relentless pacing and never lets up. I eagerly anticipate reading part 2 when I get my copy of the complete book, wherein I'll probably complete my analysis. For now, I'll merely say this is one of the most promising starts I've seen and I've very eager to see what Thompson does in the second half of this and in her works yet to come.