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Review time! with The Girl Who Would Be King

I know, it’s a prose book, but it’s written by one of our very own bloggers, so just deal with it!

The Girl Who Would Be King is, of course, Kelly Thompson’s first novel, which she funded through Kickstarter with some phenomenal success. If you’ve checked in at this blog at all over the past year or so, you know all about Kelly’s attempts to get this published through “traditional” means and her use of Kickstarter and her promotion of this book all over the Internet. She’s a marketing machine! I knew I would get this the minute she said she was publishing it, but I don’t read shit on a Kindle, so I waited for the physical product. That’s just how I roll!

I should point out a few things before I launch into this review. I’ve never met Kelly in person, but I consider her a friend. We’ve communicated quite a bit via e-mail, discussing various things about all sorts of topics. I don’t always agree with her, of course, but I think we have a good relationship. I mention this because I always feel weird about reviewing stuff by people I know personally – in the back of my mind, I always worry that I’m not being as objective as I could be. I don’t know if that comes across in the actual reviews, but it’s always in the back of my mind. Most people I speak to whose work I don’t love don’t worry too much about it – if they’re publishing stuff, they know not everyone will love it – and I assume Kelly is that way too. It’s definitely a “me” problem, but it’s there. Secondly, although I knew I would buy this because I want to support Kelly’s work, I wasn’t completely sure I would actually like it. She has written that it didn’t get published as a Young Adult novel because it’s a bit too violent, but it’s still a story aimed primarily at teenaged girls – both main characters are teenaged girls, and in many respects it’s a dual coming-of-age novel – and I’ve never been that thrilled about that kind of novel. I mean, I’m not a teenaged girl (yes, I know, it’s shocking), and I’ve never been shy about not loving coming-of-age novels. So should I just read this and move on? Do I have to review it? Well, I think so. As I’ve always pointed out, it’s not really whether I like something or not – it’s just one person’s opinion – it’s about getting the word out, and I want to get the word out about Kelly’s book. So there!

Now that I’ve totally bored you, let’s dive right in. The Girl Who Would Be King is about Bonnie Braverman and Lola LaFever, two girls who discover that they have superpowers. Both inherit them from their mothers, and both are orphans early on in the book – Bonnie’s parents died when she was six, and she’s been living in an orphanage for 12 years, while Lola kills her mother to gain her powers – Bonnie is the good one, and Lola is the bad one, in case you can’t tell from their names. They don’t know each other, but of course they become aware of each other, and while Bonnie looks for a way to live in harmony, Lola just wants to kill her opposite number. Unfortunately for both of them, it’s really hard to kill the other, so while Lola seems to have the upper hand for a good deal of the book because she seems to know more about their powers, Bonnie is a fast learner, and so the stage is set for a cataclysmic showdown at the end. You knew it was coming!

There’s a lot of good stuff and some bad stuff in the book, which is why I don’t like it more. First, the bad stuff (it’s always best to get that out of the way). This probably bothers only me, but the fact that the book is self-published means there are more errors than you’d probably find in a book that was rigorously edited (only “probably,” though, given the state of editing these days). There’s plenty of misuse of “lie” and “lay” – Kelly knows the difference, it seems, but occasionally screws it up – and I laughed out loud when I saw that “prophesy” was being used instead of “prophecy,” as that’s been my fun mistake to notice since Fear Itself #1. There’s also some odd font changes occasionally – the quotation marks are different in random spots. This happens when text is shifted from one format – say, Word – to a different one – say, to this blog. I don’t know why it happened in this book, and it doesn’t occur that often, but for some reason I noticed it, and it bugged me. Personally, I think there’s too much dialogue in the book, but that’s, once again, a “me” problem. Dialogue is very hard to write, and while Kelly does write some of it well, probably 30% or so isn’t as good and, more than that, it’s unnecessary.

But that’s penny-ante stuff, right? Well, sure, but I tend to notice those things. If you don’t, more power to you. However, there are some other things that I didn’t like about the book. It’s very plot-driven, which is perfectly fine, as who doesn’t like a good, juicy plot? However, what happens in the book is that the characters aren’t as important, and with the exception of the two main characters, they come off a bit thin and even stereotypical. Lola kidnaps a therapist named Liz when she realizes that Liz might have some insight into why she’s so angry, and it appears that their relationship will be interesting, but Kelly never really fleshes out Liz as much as she could, and the relationship suffers. Similarly, both the love interests in the book – Adrian (Lola’s dude) and Clark (Bonnie’s) – are not terribly compelling, even though they do certain things that hint at hidden depths. They’re never really developed, and so when they do things, we’re just left with their actions, and not why they would do such things. Adrian, in particular, seems to be far more interesting than the book lets on – he’s conflicted about loving a monster, and he’s also able to subdue Lola at one point, but we never learn enough about him to know why he does these things, and so we’re just left with questions. Bonnie, obviously, has more friends than Lola, but someone like her pal Bryce, who is also trying to be a hero, is so undeveloped that her efforts to fight crime come off as really bizarre, because we don’t know much about her. It’s very frustrating. The book is 357 pages long, so perhaps Kelly just thought it was going on long enough, but I wouldn’t have minded another 100 pages of this to give the minor characters a bit more “screen time,” because it’s obvious that Kelly knows how to develop characters – she does it with the main ones.

What about the good stuff? Well, Kelly finds a fascinating reason for two girls to have superpowers, and even to explain the Manichean division of Bonnie and Lola – they could have easily been clichés, one all good and the other all evil, but Kelly manages to lay a good foundation for their behavior. Once again, I wish there had been a bit more about the superpowers and who Bonnie and Lola really are, but … well, I know why Kelly doesn’t do it, and I probably can’t say anything about it. But it’s very interesting, and makes their relationship more complex. Bonnie and Lola themselves are the most developed characters in the book, and their development is why it’s frustrating that the others aren’t as well done. Yes, they’re “good” and “evil,” but as the book moves on, Kelly does a good job showing, not really how they became “good” and “evil,” but the way these identities take on lives of their own and define them beyond their wishes. Lola never reforms and Bonnie never succumbs, but Lola does start to wonder more about why she is evil and Bonnie begins to wonder if being good is worth all the pain in her life. Neither of them can live normally, but neither knows how to adjust to the way their lives are now. Lola thinks Liz can help her, while Bonnie thinks loving Clark can help her. Neither of them, however, gets the help they really need. Lola, of course, is more far gone than Bonnie is, and it’s interesting to note that even when she reaches out, however tentatively, she is betrayed by someone. She often deserves the betrayal, of course, but Kelly does a good job introducing elements of doubt into the readers’ heads – is Lola really that evil, or could someone manage to break through and reach her? Bonnie, meanwhile, is (to me, but not to many, I would imagine) a more complex character, because she knows she is almost forced to do good, even if she tries to lead a normal life. It would be easy for anyone to abuse the power she has, but she manages to remain virtuous. I think Kelly goes a bit too far in emphasizing that Bonnie can’t tell anyone her secret, but it’s still a good point. In superhero comics, the emotional toll on a hero keeping a secret identity is often so melodramatic that we don’t consider the actual pain it would cause – Peter Parker’s hand-wringing about his identity is the most prominent example, although Bruce Wayne’s comes close – but in this book, Kelly tries and (mostly) succeeds in showing how devastating it would be. Remember, both Bonnie and Lola are teenagers, so when they do some dumb things, it’s because they don’t know any better. It can make reading about their choices painful, but that’s part of growing up, isn’t it?

Where the book really shines is in the action. This is a terrifically violent book, as Kelly not only shows the devastation around the two girls when they use their powers – which superhero comics have been doing since the 1980s – but the pain inflicted on both of them when they actually fight. She’s able to depict their suffering much better than in your usual superhero comic, where injuries – even ones to fast healers – usually appear far less serious than they would be. It’s rare to see Wolverine suffering as much as Bonnie and Lola do in this book, for instance. It makes for gripping fight scenes and tense showdowns between the two main characters and even when Lola gets into trouble – we all know she’ll figure out how to defeat her enemies, but Kelly does a good job making the situations dire for her. She thinks about how these two girls would discover their powers and how they would use them, and she does a decent job showing how people would react to these two young ladies. The reactions aren’t uniform and boring, because they wouldn’t be – some people would think it’s awesome, some would freak out, some would think about how they could use the people bearing the powers. This informs a lot of the action, and Kelly does a really good job with that. It’s a gripping read, one that really drives you forward.

Ultimately, I can only Mildly Recommend The Girl Who Would Be King because the problems I had with it kept me from loving it unequivocally. I don’t regret buying it in the least, because it’s quite entertaining, but there are some problems with it. Or, at least I think there are. But I’m kind of a jerk, aren’t I? You can buy The Girl Who Would Be King in many different formats – digitally, of course, or in softcover or hardcover. If you want to give Kelly money, there’s really nothing stopping you!

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