Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn’s debut novel, is fun. I had a big smile on my face while reading most of it, and when I wasn’t smiling, I was gasping in shock at Big Reveals, blushing furiously during the sexy bits, or shaking the book and yelling, “Evie, don’t be stupid!” (In my defense, she was being willfully stupid.) Sure, Heroine Complex is ostensibly about a pair of Asian-American women, one of whom is a superhero and the other is her personal assistant, but it’s also about the power of female friendship, as well as personal identity and exigence in the face of social pressure. Also, it’s about cupcake demons and the earth-shaking power of a high-stakes karaoke battle.
Eight years ago, an inter-dimensional portal opened up in San Francisco, spewing nasty demons and bestowing low-grade superpowers throughout a small portion of the citizenry. Some powers are useful, like telekinesis or creating glamours, and some are, well, less so; Magnificent Mercedes has a kind of real-time traffic cam in her head, and there are plenty of other people with even more mundane gifts. Evie Tanaka is the long-suffering personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, grade-A prima donna and self-designated protector of their fair city. Aveda wears tight jumpsuits, spends hours every day training her body for grueling fights, and throws epic tantrums when she sees nasty comments on her social media pages. Evie’s job is to keep Aveda’s ego under control, livestream demon battles, and clean demon blood off Aveda’s leather boots. When Aveda is badly injured and Evie must pose as her boss, what should be a one-night gig turns into a complicated commitment as Evie’s own powers are exposed and she learns more information about the demon portals. Can she maintain the illusion that Aveda Jupiter is her normal imperious self? Will she be able to force her teenaged sister, Bea, to go to school? Is there any hope for her to live a normal life?
Evie’s voice is funny, world-weary, intelligent, and instantly engaging. She’s spent nearly a decade carefully establishing an inflexible routine to escape a secret tragic history — wearing the same clothes every day, eating the same food for every meal, allowing herself to experience a limited range of emotions, permitting absolutely no surprises — and as it falls to pieces, her panic and immaturity are palpable. Evie’s spent so much time micro-managing everyone else’s lives that she has no idea how to do anything else, which would be a great impetus for the story on its own, but Kuhn raises Heroine Complex’s stakes by putting the fate of the city in the balance. Arguing with your teenage sister or oldest friend is one thing; jump-kicking a demon-possessed statue and facing down a catty fashion blogger is quite another. Kuhn also includes some excellent commentary on white hipster appropriation of Asian culture, particularly food and kung-fu cinema, and the frustration that the same kids who made fun of Evie for eating spam musubi became adults who think they know more about hole-in-the-wall dumpling shops than she could. Despite the supernatural trappings, Evie reads like a fully real person, and Kuhn writes her flailing attempts to establish a new identity with compassion and humor.
Aveda Jupiter wouldn’t be much of a superheroine without a support crew; fellow residents of the restored Victorian she calls home include Lucy Valdez, her bodyguard and personal trainer, and Nate Jones, demonology expert and mad scientist. San Francisco has also expanded its police department to include a Demon Unit to help clean up after battles, headed by the taciturn and immaculately dressed Rose Rorick. As the novel progresses, Bea and an old friend of Evie and Aveda’s, Scott, are likewise drawn into Aveda HQ’s daily operations. The characters all feel distinct and are given plenty of quirks that are sure to become useful in further installments. For now, the focus is on Evie, particularly her relationship with Aveda, and their shifting dynamics from childhood friends to boss-and-assistant to something which has the potential to be quite fulfilling for each of them.
Kuhn does a great job of establishing the parameters of the world she’s building, keeping this novel concentrated on San Francisco while occasionally acknowledging the wider world beyond. She brings the city and its people to life on the page and makes any oddity seem totally plausible, balancing complex emotional depth with sheer fun and silliness. She’s taken the best of what makes superhero comics appealing and added her own spin to it, and as wonderful as Heroine Complex is, I can’t wait to see what she’ll come up with next.