Our story so far:
Not so terribly long ago, I read, reviewed, and raved about writer/artist/raconteur and Kickstarter success story Kelly Thompson's first novel, The Girl Who Would Be King, the first part of which she was very happy to post for free in an effort to catch some interest for the forthcoming publication of the full book. In my case, it worked.
For those of you who don't wanna read through the previous post on this, suffice it to say that Part 1 was a great start to the book--working as the young adult novel it is geared to be, but also featuring a very clever examination of superhero tropes and commentary thereupon. One could probably write a book of equal length to the novel just documenting all the references contained within.
So, having finally read the complete book, what's the verdict? Does it live up to the promise of part 1 and deliver a satisfying story ending in an awesome climax? The answer is, succinctly enough: Yes. SO MUCH.
The Girl Who Would Be King concerns the intertwining histories of Bonnie Braverman and Lola LeFever, two young women who seem to have histories that strangely mirror one another--both become orphans soon after we're introduced to them, both of them are well familiar with superhero comics, and both of whom soon learn they have powers which set them apart from everyone else.
Where they differ is in what that power means to them. Bonnie is compelled to do good. Lola uses power as a means to her own impulsive ends, and the more she gets, the more she craves. Separated by 3,000 miles, they soon come to realise they are connected on a deeper level than either can know, and they are destined to battle one another.
While that may seem like a rather thin premise on which to hang a story, Thompson is playing a deeper game with this story, and one of the things that makes it so intensely readable and engaging is that you can read this, knowing the tropes and the elements she's worked into it and think you know how it's going to go, and somehow you can be ahead of the story, but still behind at one and the same time. In lesser hands, this could have bogged down into a rather tedious game of spot the reference/symbol, but Thomspon takes real care in deploying them, and learning the purpose and seeing the connections of them is part of the engagement one gets in this book.
Moreover, she manages to do this in the framework of a coming of age story which (and for this I was eternally grateful and most impressed) doesn't conform that Hero's Journey stuff so blatantly. Thompson has a lot to say about growing up, the responsibilities of adulthood, and the struggle to build a life and identity for yourself apart from your circumstances and your parents. Part of the reason this doesn't feel like so much rote coming of age stuff is because she's abandoned that framework--Bonnie and Lola have no framework (short of their respectful head-fulls of superhero comics) to understand their powers and their destiny at first, and just do their best to get their minds around it. This feels rather more realistic and natural than them just meeting a convenient wizard or whatever who just happens to be Superhero Tech Support And Oh Yes teaching You That Being A Hero Is Like, Growing Up, Man.
While a grounding in superhero lore will help you, Thompson reaches back past superhero history, into the myths and legends that inspired the first superheroes and links it all together in this chain that binds the whole story (and the story about the story--I told you this book was pretty deep) together in a way that once you see the big picture and see where it's all heading, you're furiously turning pages trying to see how it all works out. Pace wise, it's like Terminator 2 in how it barrels relentlessly forward, constantly raising the stakes and building to an amazing critical mass. It's a book that can pause and savor a gentle moment (and Thomspon writes amazingly tender moments with the same skill she brings to the city-smashing superhero fights) and the pace never flags.
What makes this book so good is that despite the deliberate pace of part 1 (which is really not that slow--every scene seems to be pushing towards something, it's just compared to the next two parts, which move like a pissed-off indy car with a cinderblock on the accelerator, it's a bit more deliberate) parts 2 and 3 strike a very interesting balance, juxtaposing beautiful romantic moments, genuine emotion, and very lighthearted funny moments with immediate dangers, shocking revelations, and the insistent feeling that this is all building to something huge.
I know you're probably thinking that "Uhm, really, every time they try to do one of these 'realistic' takes on superheroes, it always seems like it shortchanges the superhero bit of it in the service of the realistic bit, almost as though it's so obsessed with being seen as 'grown up' it's embarrassed about the superhero elements." To which I say "Yeah, I know--that's why everyone wore trench coats back in the damn 1990s," and also, "This is not that kinda story. You want superhero action, boy do you ever get it. You are in the hands of someone who said 'realism sheamlism--Dammit, I wanna see people having a fistfight while running at super-speed.'"
The battle that climaxes part 1 and the final battle actually, are two of my favourite and some of the most well-choreographed fights I've read (and I watch/read/absorb a lot of action stuff) What's more, the action has a certain tough-minded realism that never short-changes the effect of the violence--people get wrecked in this story, and often those who dish it out are equally hurt by it. It's never gory or excessive, but is done with real thought about the toll this takes. In a day and age where you can't leaf through an issue of Justice League without someone getting an arm off or having something or other jammed in their eye, thank God there's someone who realises that when you write violence with taste and conscience, it makes the violent moments that much more powerful and effective.
I really would like to discuss where all the superhero tropes and elements that run through the book like circuit cables lead to, but some things shouldn't be spoiled. Suffice it to say, the denouement of the story features a major revelation, a meditation on the cyclical--no, make that circular--nature of superheroes, why you don't see many old superheroes, and a climactic fight (which echoes the famous fight from Miracleman, but took the right lessons from it rather than just paining everything red) and an ending which subtly and perfectly encapsulates the themes of the book without having to have someone make a speech.
As you may no doubt have realised by this point, I really did like this book. It has such confidence, intelligence, thought and care put into every element that it feels very genuine and wins you over very quickly. It's very assured for a debut novel, and whatever level it connects with you on--as coming of age story, as superhero commentary, or as kick-ass superhero story--you will be surprised, thrilled, charmed, but certainly never disappointed.