I write this in advance, but by the time you guys read this, it ought to be the Tuesday after Worldcon.
At this time of year, perhaps we should talk about award lists and award winners—but really, I’d rather talk about the entertaining stuff that hasn’t made it onto the award lists. Like Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex and its sequel, Heroine Worship. I missed Heroine Complex when it came out last year, but I’m glad to have been able to catch up on these two unique entries in the superhero(ine) subgenre. Well, unique as far as I can tell: there aren’t that many superhero stories that star Asian-American women and mix soap opera, action, and comedy.
In Heroine Complex, Evie Tanaka—personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, her childhood friend and San Francisco’s pre-eminent superhero—has to stand in for her demanding boss to preserve Aveda’s image while she’s got an injured leg. There are murderous demons on the loose, and supernatural karaoke battles for the fate of the city, Evie has to deal with Aveda’s jealousy and insecurity as well. Because Evie has powers of her own. Terrifying, fiery powers. If she can muster the confidence and the control to use them, maybe she can save her city—and her friends. Told from the first person in Evie’s voice, Heroine Complex a fast, fun read, with a sense of humour reminiscent of Jim C. Hines and a light touch with dialogue.
In Heroine Worship, the point of view character changes to Aveda Jupiter herself—born Annie Chang. Evie is getting married, and Aveda is determined to be the Best Friend and the Best Maid of Honour, and perform all wedding-related duties to the highest standard—except that what Aveda thinks is best and what Evie thinks is best are rather clashing, and there just so happens to be a demon-influenced army of angry brides-to-be in San Francisco: an army that’s fixated on Evie.
Heroine Worship is as much about Aveda learning to listen to other people, to respect boundaries, and to deal with her own insecurities, as it is about the demonic bride takeover. Aveda grows as a person, and that’s the book’s heart—and really, it’s a pretty good heart. Although the soap operatic elements aren’t exactly to my taste.
Readers of this column may remember when I discussed Violette Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno novels. I’m still sad we won’t see more of that sword-and-sorcery series: I miss sword-and-sorcery. But, good news! Malan is back, this time writing as V.M. Escalada, with a new novel in a new series, Halls of Law. Halls of Law has an epic fantasy feel to it, but it’s almost as much fun as Escalada’s novels as Malan.
Kerida Nast, from a military family, is bitterly disappointed to be discovered as a Talent and sent to the Halls of Law to train. Officially, Talents have no family and no place outside the Halls of Law, but they have magic: they can tell things about people and objects with a single touch. Ker is only just beginning to be reconciled to her new life when her land is invaded by a patriarchal enemy who also—just as a bonus—thinks that the Talents are an abomination to be destroyed. With her country ravaged around her, Ker finds herself at the heart of a search for an heir to rally around, and thus at the heart of the resistance to the invasion.
Also, there’s a griffin. And cool magic shit. I mean, I think it could be just a little bit better if it wasn’t quite so straight a novel, and if it was a little bit less white. But it’s an awful lot of fun, and I really can’t wait for the next book.
Lee Kelly’s A Criminal Magic isn’t what I’d call fun, exactly. But it’s interesting. Set in an alternate 1920s America, where Prohibition refers to magic—and where magic can produce really addictive drugs—this is an elegant novel about the criminal underworld, choices, love, and self-knowledge.
Joan Kendrick, a young woman from the country, is recruited by one of the bosses in Washington DC’s most notorious crime syndicate for magical purposes. Alex Danfrey, sorcerer and son of a criminal, now an undercover federal agent, has infiltrated the syndicate in the hopes of bringing it down. He and Joan grow close, but the criminal underworld is a place of danger, treachery and betrayal. Joan is determined not to be poor and powerless again.
Kelly’s prose is crisp and precise, her characters compelling, and the world she sketches atmospheric and fascinating. A Criminal Magic is a very promising second novel, leavened with a touch of inevitable tragedy. I look forward to seeing what Kelly does next.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign