A novel about two teenage girls with superpowers—one good, one evil—both discovering their abilities and limits while, at the same time, stumbling through life's lessons—relationships and all the accompanying emotional baggage—toward adulthood, The Girl Who Would Be King sounds like a young adult title, but author Kelly Thompson comes from a different background. A prolific and well-liked comics blogger and reviewer, Thompson early references her major source of inspiration, which, in her novel, also serves to inspire Bonnie Braverman, the virtuous of the story's two opposed protagonists, along her heroic path. And, as the story ramps up into spectacular superheroic action sequences, it becomes clear that, despite being a prose novel, The Girl Who Would Be King is far more DC than YA.
The story begins with six-year-old Bonnie miraculously surviving (Unbreakable-style, natch) the car crash that claims the lives of her parents. The first-person narrative then shifts a few years forward to teenage Lola LeFever, who murders her own emotionally distant mother in order to steal her power—a concept that Lola seems to grasp only by instinct and intuition. The novel then progresses in alternating chapters between Bonnie and Lola, as they deal both with living on their own and with how to proceed with the superhuman abilities—strength, athleticism, healing (and that's just for starters)—that, for reasons unknown to either girl, they have inherited from their mothers. Cosmically, the girls, although initially each unaware of the other's existence, are set on a collision course, because, again for reasons unknown to them, Bonnie is intrinsically compelled to do good, while Lola thirsts for power and favors a conscienceless pursuit of it.
The parallel narrative may be the distinguishing hook of The Girl Who Would Be King, but I early on found Lola to be the more entertaining character by far, to the extent that getting through the Bonnie chapters to get back to Lola occasionally felt like a chore that also wrecked the pacing. It's hardly a new phenomenon for readers, bored with predictable heroes, to connect better with "the bad guy" and even to want to see them win. Thompson's own fascination with exploring villains is surely what motivated her to write from Lola's perspective. More than that, as an adult reader weary of angsty YA protagonists, I just found Lola's sarcasm and pitiless candor refreshing, and it's hilarious seeing how the world breaks down—shallow, senseless, annoying—through her eyes. There is angst to her story for sure, as, setting aside the seemingly supernaturally imposed dichotomy that inclines her toward evil, her journey is largely defined by her being let down by every person in her life. But her commitment to being a badass precludes her from wallowing in self-pity. She's got a world to take over, after all. And, even as she cynically observes other people at their most worthless, she's also introspective enough to recognize that, self-described supervillain though she may be, she herself is still just a teenager, with no real idea what the hell she's doing (and often regretting in hindsight when she hasn't handled herself in as smart or as cool a manner as she might have).
Bonnie, meanwhile, is a more typical heroic protagonist, a little boring and perhaps at times even insipid. She takes far longer to commit to her path, because she must continually agonize over all the implications and considerations, from the big-picture (gifted with extraordinary powers, what are her responsibilities to the world?) to the personal (how to balance secret superhero activities with her love life). Although her story is ostensibly the more realistic—Bonnie works crummy jobs to make rent, deals with snotty coworkers, and meets quirky hipster friends, and she also settles on the East Coast, where Thompson herself resides, whereas Lola, located in the West, marches toward world domination and does't need to saddle herself with adult responsibilities—the Bonnie half of the novel strangely does not ring as true, as though Thompson writes it with less genuine interest, not because she has less to say about this character (who is probably drawn from her own life experience more so than is Lola) but because the hero's story is so well-trodden that, compared to the fun of writing a charismatic villain, it is actually much harder work to craft an original and compelling hero. The Bonnie story consequently feels sometimes more like an obligatory inclusion than an organically unfolding narrative.
That's not to say that Bonnie is a bad character. I found the arc of her story less interesting than Lola's, but, whatever the weaknesses of the Bonnie chapters, Thompson brings a down-to-earth contemplativeness to both perspectives that is rarely to be found in superhero stories. These teenagers, with eyes still fresh, provide honest observations and insights about right and wrong, responsibility, adulthood, solitude, and contentment. It's also impressive that Thompson manages to have each narrate with a distinct voice. Bonnie is more wistful and poetic, whereas Lola narrates without a filter and often changes her mind mid-paragraph about what she's saying.
But The Girl Who Would Be King is perhaps at its very strongest when Thompson is writing the action, which is where her affection for superhero comics really comes through. It's a violent story, and Thompson pulls no punches in describing the violence. More than any of Bonnie and Lola's other powers, Thompson seems especially to take advantage of their healing abilities, as repeatedly the characters suffer gruesome injuries that are described in graphic detail. Thankfully, she provides the same level of detail when writing the fight sequences, delivering literally blow-by-blow descriptions of the action. These sections are composed with the meticulousness of an expert action choreographer, and indeed the action in the book finally scales up to such a spectacular degree as to make any of those big-budget superhero movies seem small by comparison. What early on gives the impression perhaps of an adolescent allegory of two teenage girls eventually explodes into a struggle of two forces of nature with enough power to potentially wipe out a city with just the collateral damage from their combat. There are scenes of characters punching one another with such force that the recipient's body leaves a them-shaped hole in the wall through which they are punched. 'Nuff said.
Toward the end, there is some underdeveloped mythology, some questionable plot devices, and a painful sense of inevitability to The Girl Who Would Be King, and I did find that, as characters, both Bonnie and Lola seemed to become more one-dimensional during the final quarter of the novel. It's not an absolutely brilliant piece of fiction, but it's a page-turner most of the way through, and if you like superheroes at all (or have ever wanted to like them but couldn't deal with the shallow hypermasculine characterizations that typify a lot of superhero comics), it does enough interesting things to merit a look.