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?
Read full review at You're Killing.Us