James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

We do the things you wanna see

Heroine Complex  (Heroine Complex, volume 1)

By Sarah Kuhn 

24 Sep, 2016


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Heroine Complex is Sarah Kuhn’s debut novel. 

An army of demons invaded San Francisco, but turned out to be somewhat fragile; they all died almost as soon as they arrived in our dimension (shades of H. G. Wells The War of the Worlds ). Ever since the failed invasion, San Francisco has endured several small scale incursions … but those attacks are nothing that dedicated volunteers cannot handle. 

Volunteers like San Francisco’s own leather-and-spandex clad superheroine, Aveda Jupiter. And voluntolds , like Aveda’s timid but loyal personal assistant, Evie Tanaka. 

Aveda is one of the lucky few who won the superpower lottery (an odd consequence of the collapse of the first demonic gate). Her power — extremely low grade telekinesis — is only one component of the former Annie Chang’s new costumed identity. Aveda is an exceptionally determined type-A-squared superheroine. Daily training and a lot of pluck give her superpower that necessary extra oomph. Not to mention lots of headlines. 

Evie, in contrast, does not want fame. She prefers security, and a steady paycheck, so that she can afford to raise her kid sister. Aveda provides the paycheck; Evie does all the tedious menial jobs. Evie avoids any kind of stress, which explains the complete absence of boy- or girlfriend. Pity that her job requires her to accompany her boss, as Aveda goes foot-to-demonically-possessed-cupcake with invading demons. 

Aveda has to stay active to keep the spotlight. When a training accident puts her temporarily out of commission, she asks Evie to don the leather-and-spandex as a stand-in. After all, as reluctant as she is to admit it, Evie does have a superpower of her own. A superpower far more impressive, far more destructive, than Aveda’s lift a make-up compact if she strains” telekinesis 1: pyrokinesis.

A power that Evie is not all that adept at controlling. 

When the demons suddenly change their tactics, Evie is going to have to step out of her beloved shadows.… 


About Evie passing as Aveda: the author is not implying that any two Asian women will look alike (they don’t). Evie and Aveda know a low-grade wizard who can magic up convincing disguises on demand. 

Artist Jason Chan has clearly read the book. His cover relies on the opening scene for inspiration. Still, I thought perhaps he had taken some liberties with Aveda’s footwear. Nope. The text mentions that Aveda’s costume includes five-inch heels. In which Aveda does acrobatics and martial arts. I am not one hundred percent sure that her sole superpower is the telekinesis, to be honest. 

Some readers may be startled to the point of catatonia (or apoplexy) over the very notion of a superhero story with two super-powered persons of colour. There are about a thousand superhumans 2 in San Francisco. Assuming the same demographics as the general population, that means about 480 white superhumans, about 330 Asian, about 150 Hispanic and Latino superhumans and about 60 African American 3.

I wasn’t crazy about Evie’s romance, which is why it’s barely getting a sentence. Nor did I like the vapid idiot-ball-grasping Big Bad, whom I won’t even mention by name. Although I suppose there is a long genre tradition of super-villainous organizations being hamstrung because their boss is a numbskull. 

Demographics and fight scenes are fun, but what drives a novel are the characters. Many superhero stories, if you remove the powers, you remove the story. Not so here: much of the plot is driven by Aveda and Evie’s relationship (boss to employee AND friend to friend) and by Evie’s complicated family life. You could erase the superhero stuff and still have a functional story. 

Heroine Complex is a bit uneven — it’s definitely an early work — but it’s promising enough I will be keep an eye for the author’s future works. 

Heroine Complex is available here.

1: A 10 oz makeup compact is, what, about 300 grams? So Aveda can probably exert a force in excess of 3 Newtons? However, her efforts seem to be very tiring, so she cannot count on a small force applied over a very long periods to produce absurdly high final velocities. E.g., 3 Newtons applied to a 30 gram object for two minutes should get the object up to about 12 km/s. But at the end of that two minutes, it will be over 700 km down-range, if I have not botched the math. Also, the effect may be range-limited. Still, she can definitely turn off the bedroom light without getting out of bed. 

(How does this compare to the force it takes to pull eyelids closed? YOU tell me.) 

2: In this novel, most people with superpowers don’t go the spandex route for the same reason most people don’t in real life: it’s not safe. As well, I would imagine the whole media-darling angle to superheroing means the pay is extremely unevenly distributed, with a few people doing very well and a long, poor, tail. 

3: Some sets overlap. 

Some superhero traditionalists may wonder what the numbers would look like if the story were set in New York. I mean, we’ve all seen Friends. NYC must be pastier than a Jazz age burlesque dancer. Not so much: the same event in New York would produce about 440 white superhumans (330 non-Hispanic white), 260 African American superhumans, and 130 Asian superhumans. Probably in the comics, all the Asian and African American superhumans are standing just out of frame or behind opaque objects, like Asians on Firefly.