Separated by thousands of miles, two young women are about to realize their extraordinary powers which will bind their lives together in ways they can't begin to understand.
Protecting others. Maintaining order. Being good. These are all important things for Bonnie Braverman, even if she doesn't understand why. Confined to a group home since she survived the car accident that killed both her parents, Bonnie has lived her life until now in self-imposed isolation and silence; but when an opportunity presents itself to help another girl in need, Bonnie has to decide whether to actually use the power she has long suspected she has. Power that frightens her.
Across the country, Lola LeFever is inheriting her own power by sending her mother over a cliff...literally. For Lola the only thing that matters is power; getting it, taking it, and eliminating anyone who would get in the way of her pursuit of it. With her mother dead and nothing to hold her back from the world any longer, Lola sets off to test her own powers on anyone unfortunate enough to cross her. And Lola's not afraid of anything.
One girl driven to rescue, save, and heal; the other driven to punish, destroy, and kill.
And now they're about to meet.
I've spent most of the night trying to sort out how I feel about this book, and I think the gist of what I've come to is "disappointed". I was really psyched for The Girl Who Would Be King. I'm a fan of the author's podcast; she seems like a sensible, gender-aware woman, and I was super-excited by the idea of a female-positive YA superhero book that could avoid all of the traps that make this genre so frustrating.
Also, that is an amazing cover. I mean goddamn, Stephanie Hans should do every cover. This is the same woman who did Journey Into Mystery covers too, omg.
Ahem. ANYWAY. The point is, my expectations were unusually high for this book, which is why, even though I wouldn't call it "awful", The Girl Who Would Be King was such a let-down. I was expecting something amazing, and while there is a good story in here, and there are things that I liked about it, there was also a disheartening amount of...flab.
I don't just mean "flab" in the sense of padding. I mean, yes, the book is three-hundred-some-odd pages of super-dense writing, and no, it doesn't need to be, but it's not just about that. It's all of it. When I say "flab", I mean, like, untrained muscle. There's so much in this book that could have been amazing if it had been more focused, honed to a finer point, crafted with more deft skill. It's in dire need of a good pruning.
One of the problems that's really clear in retrospect is that there's not a whole hell of a lot going on, here. Which isn't to say the book is devoid of stuff happening, or even action - in fact, there's actually some really good action towards the end - but what it is completely devoid of are twists, turns, and dramatic tension. What you read in that summary, up there? That's exactly what you get from The Girl Who Would Be King.
The obvious object, the essential premise of the book, is that these girls embodying these opposing forces will fight. That's what it's building up to: one big, powerhouse showdown, and that's fine, I guess, but I expected...more. Some sort of twist, a play, like maybe the girl who is compelled to maintain order would go all Justice Lord overboard with it, and only the freedom-loving "bad girl" could stop her. But it quickly became clear that wasn't going to happen; it's straight black and white, chaotic evil vs. lawful good, arbitrary compulsion to save vs. arbitrary compulsion to kill.
The thing is, once you come to understand that there will be no subversion of that expectation, all that's left is the confrontation. Lola vs. Bonnie. You know it's coming, and that inevitability just makes you that much more aware of how long the road to get there is. I spent the book glancing at my watch, so to speak, going "Okay, yes, that's fine, but when are they going to meet?"
What I'm trying to say here is that there isn't really a "plot". No particular obstacles to overcome, no villains to uncover, no motives to discover - just the daily lives of two girls who will inevitably fight. The closest we get to a mystery is the question of what the girls are/where their power comes from, and that...well, that whole mythology opens up another can of worms that I'll talk about later. What I'll say now is that, while it provided some of the more interesting segments of the book, it was far too sporadic and thin to keep a book that long going.
So, not a lot of plot. Which, I suppose, isn't exactly necessary. You could argue that it's a character study, and you would probably be right, and that would be fine, except that, as a character study, it is utterly done in by the writing.
I've said before that I'm not a prose Nazi, okay, and it's true. Not like that's something to be proud of, and I'm trying to work on it, but being up front, I just don't really notice bad or awkward writing unless it is really bad or awkward.
The writing in this book is really awkward.
The word that kept coming to my mind was "fumbling". I felt like the words that were being strung together here were often clumsy and imprecise. I can't really explain it better than that. Sorry. Part of that might have been the tone, which was casual to the max, but I think more of it is owed to the super-frickin'-tell-y writing style.
This is actually a problem that I've run into with first-person perspective YA in general - it seems like so many books use that as an excuse to dump the character's every single innermost feeling on us without an ounce of subtlety. "I felt sad, I felt happy, I felt slightly perturbed that my coffee was only lukewarm", blah blah blah. It usually goes hand-in-hand with that conversational mess of a storytelling style, where even when the protagonists are actually experiencing things, it feels like they're just telling you about it in some sort of third-hand, relayed experience. You know what happened, what they did, and how they felt, and yet you still end up feeling detached from it all. Which I'm pretty sure is the polar opposite of the first-person perspective's goal.
The Girl Who Would Be King has exactly that problem, and makes it worse by frequently compressing long periods of time and activity into actual summaries that can last for pages. I understand that the book covers months of the main characters' lives - years, in Bonnie's case - and that you can't chronicle every single day, but there are literally paragraphs of straight-up telling. This is important stuff! These are character developments, and oh god, relationship developments that happen totally off screen, and we're still expected to care about them?
For example: when Bonnie, our Good heroine, meets Clark, her bland-eyed love interest, we stick with them in the present for two dates before we leave to spend a chapter with Lola. When we come back, we come back to this:
I feel euphoric most of the time, almost high off of my good deeds like they're drugs I've long been addicted to. The rest of my life is in chaos though. Things are coming apart, and fast. I almost get fired, from both my jobs, and then I do get fired from my barista job, although it's hard to care too much about that since I hated it anyway. I leave Clark suddenly and in mid-sentence more times than I can count. I break dates and when I do show up I'm painfully late or ditch out early. Twice he's found strange holes in my clothes and when I can’t explain any of it – the absences, the holes, the sudden departures – we have terrible fights. He's starting to not trust me and it feels horrible, in part because he's right, he shouldn't trust me. I'm lying to him. But I don't know how to explain anything, and even if I could would he even believe me? And if I could convince him, would he stay with me? Would he tell me to stop? Is there any chance things could just be the same between us? Is it dangerous for him if I'm a superhero? I feel somewhere deep inside like it is dangerous for him.
HA HA WUT. That's all great to hear, but you know what would have been better? ACTUALLY SEEING IT. This sort of thing happens over and over again, and the book suffers from it in so many different ways. It kills the tension, it robs the reader of the opportunity to be invested in the characters and thus care about the drama, deprives the characters of nuance and depth, and reduces the side characters into cardboard cutouts!
As a reader, I felt cheated out of so many things that Bonnie and Lola mentioned in passing, things that would have rounded out the world and made the characters human: Bonnie's fights with Clark, the time she spent juggling her life as a superhero, Lola's establishing camaraderie with her first gang, and the time they spent going on heists. I felt cheated out of potentially awesome characters, like Bryce and Liesel. Bonnie's support cast was woefully underdeveloped, as were both girls' love interests. In the end, we knew little to nothing about any of them, except for the traits the heroines told us they were supposed to have. They were just...props; plot devices there to further the story. With only one real exception, they were never able to become actual characters.
Perhaps worst of all, I felt cheated out of compelling MCs. Lola came closest - she was more complex, and indisputably the more interesting of the two to read about. Her story was inherently tragic, and her life involved more legitimate drama, since, you know, she was a magically-made sociopathic narcissistic serial killer and all. I'd have liked to see her establish relationships with more people, but somehow she still managed to be the one to develop the most realistic-seeming relationship with the only "side character" who could actually justifiably be called such. Her therapy sessions with Liz weren't terribly action packed, but they still managed to be interesting, and even slightly tense, and it was at least justification for Lola to expose all her innermost feelings.
The mental breakdown, though, is probably what saved Lola from completely devolving into a cartoonish, for the evulz-type villain. Those segments were the closest either of the characters came to showing any human-like emotion, and they did the Lola good.
Bonnie, however, was a complete disaster. Somehow the magical compulsion to be "good" also robbed her of any noteworthy personality, as though she couldn't have been a "good guy" while still possessing a sharp wit or bubbly charm. Or maybe that was part of the magical trade-off - sure, one of them has to be evil, but at least that one gets the personality! Apparently all of the conflict, too. Bonnie was so goddamned bland that all of the "drama" in her life (when Lola wasn't involved, of course) felt drummed-up and manufactured.
In particular, there was the previously-mentioned conflict with her boyfriend somewhere around the middle of the book, where Bonnie arbitrarily decides that he, and only he, cannot know about her powers. She's already told her roommates, but her boyfriend? Nuh-uh. So when he finally catches her red-handed stopping a crime and healing from a horrible injury, instead of going home and calmly explaining the situation to him, she freaks out and runs away, crying about how she "can't possibly try to fit in, because if you do, if you manage to carve out some beautiful niche of happiness for yourself, then one day it will be taken from you as surely and truly as the sun rises each morning."
That was the exact moment I just completely checked out with the character. Maybe she was just being a drama queen, but sorry, no, I can't deal with that much self-inflicted stupidity. I'm have no sympathy for you, you can go be a boring martyr somewhere else.
At any rate, what it comes down to is that The Girl Who Would Be King is just too goddamned over-narrated. "Show don't tell", this is a fundamental thing in writing. We're supposed to be experiencing Bonnie and Lola's lives with them, getting to know them and the characters around them through their interactions, not by having the heroines explain them to us. That's the most basic problem with this book: I don't feel like I experienced much of it at all. I felt like the heroine explained shit to me for three hundred pages, and so I just don't care.
I think this whole idea would be better served by either a comic or a short story. There's just not enough content - or perhaps, not enough well-handled content - to warrant a three-hundred-page story.
As a concept...I'm sort of split. On the one hand, I think it has an intriguing backstory with a lot of potential. It's sort of a Buffy meets Hancock thing, what with a Chosen pair of girls from a long line of Chosen girls who inherit the powers of gods.
However, for being basically the only unknown in the entire story, I don't think the mythology subplot delivered nearly as well as it should have. We don't get enough information about where the power really comes from, or why it's passed on to these two girls, even though we're teased with it throughout the whole damn book. We see that it was some sort of ritual gone wrong - but why? How? What was the intent? Why does it exist? What are these girls' roles supposed to be? These pieces mean a lot to me, because they contain information that would help to interpret the story and mythology, but we never get them.
I'm also not a huge fan of divine destiny, or pre-determined forces that take away will, so that's another strike against the idea for me. People aren't fate's bitches; everyone makes choices. So to see characters who are programmed to be good or bad, who are physically compelled to act a certain way, whose choices are limited by the forces they embody...it's hard for me to dig that.
Personally, I'd have found both Lola and Bonnie to be more compelling if their actions and lives had been more in flux, if there had been a point at which either of them could have gone the other way. Or Hell, even if there had just been more of an internal criticism of the mythology that made them that way.
But aside from a few throwaway lines in a letter, it basically boils down to, "well there's got to be balance", because magic says so. Even in the end, which I thought might redeem that aspect by integrating both girl's powers of light and dark into Bonnie, presumably after which she would make her own destiny, they end up doubling-down on the original idea by having Bonnie give birth to twin girls - one good, one bad.
Sequel bait? Maybe.
Speaking of, ugh, the life cycles on these heroines was crazy frustrating. According to world rules, they get their power in their youth, are at their most powerful whilst they are pregnant, and then lose the majority to the baby when it is born. Because, of course, the pinnacle of a woman's life experience is pregnancy, right? It's all downhill from there, apparently; the women in Bonnie and Lola's lines literally never live past forty. If they don't kill each other or get bumped off by their daughters, they're take out by, IDK, the forces of the universe or something. Because nothing good comes after forty, amirite?
Blah, but there were good things, right? I think what I do appreciate most about The Girl Who Would Be King is, well, that we get dual female narrators in the first place, but also what I suspect was the active decision to make many of the side characters female. It was nice to run in to so many women for a change. I appreciated that all of the mentor-like characters were female, and that the mother-daughter relationship was one that was important and emphasized in the mythology. Unfortunately, despite this, I still feel that the book seriously lacked in meaningful female bonds.
I'm inclined to chalk this up almost entirely to the writing, because there are a few characters that Bonnie is supposed to have a bond with, but that, again, we only know about because Bonnie tells us this. The camaraderie with Bryce, the friendship with Liesel, the connection to her mother, we never really feel them, they're just things that we're supposed to take for granted because the book says so. I'm sorry, but that's not a real bond. If I don't get the opportunity to connect to the character the way Bonnie says she does, how am I supposed to care about the relationship between them?
Yet again, it's Lola who comes closest to having a meaningful relationship with a woman, it's just a pretty unhealthy one. The hostage-kidnapper dynamic between Lola and Liz is the only one that gets any kind of development/substance, and it ends up being this weird combination of Stockholm/unwilling cooperation, and there's a huge power imbalance, though it's clear that Lola cares, in her unhinged way, and Liz might, too. Still, not ideal, especially considering how it ends. I had hoped that the heroines might end up being/becoming friends, only to be unwillingly pitted against one another, but that was not to be, either.
I also could have done without the appearance of a needless Alpha Bitch character, or Lola's particular focus of hatred on her love interest's sister. And hey, while we're talking annoying cliches, I think the goddamn insta-love that both Bonnie and Lola experience with pretty much the first boy they lay eyes on can go die in a fire. I had hoped that it might be explained away or critiqued as some aspect of their magic, some compulsion to mate and continue the line, but there was no evidence of that. Far as I could see, it was just the usual insta-get-married-and-have-kids-lasts-forever first love, played straight.
Truly, these are a few of my favorite tropes.
All in all, The Girl Who Would Be King was a big let-down for me. While I appreciate the concept and the effort to be female-positive, the writing just kills it dead. It's too long, too padded, too clumsy. The characters need developing, the writing needs showing, and every single gooddamn "-ly" dialogue/descriptor tag and "I feel" sentence needs to disappear. It's not a rage-inducing failure, but there are serious, crippling flaws.
I think it'd make a pretty decent comic, but as a book, it's a miss for me.
Two (and a half!) stars