So it's officially novella season over at The Book Smugglers and this is the second that I'm looking at from the end of the year. It's still technically the Year of the Superhero, too, so this is very topical and just a really. Damn. Good. Story. About magical girls and friendship and fighting monsters and scars and love and it's just wow… So the novella unfolds over five parts, each one from the perspective of one of the main team. As such, I'm looking at each story quasi-individually, so that (like the story) the review will grow with each section to work toward one massive review. Which means, as well, that there will probably be SPOILERS after the first section. Be warned.
|Art by Denise Yap|
Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap (~40,000 words)
"Hurricane Heels: Alex"
This story does a great job of setting up the situation both as it stands (five women going out for a bachelorette party) and the situation as it's been (five friends who have, since early adolescence, fought evil with the use of magical powers they gained from a mysterious goddess). And it does that through the perspective of Alex, on of the five women-turned-superheroes, as she deals with her feelings, her fears, and her friends as the situation of the group is set to maybe shift. Because while it's Selena who's getting married, the action casts a certain doubt on everything and everyone, each of them uncertain of what might happen, and all of them tired of the constant fight that has dominated their lives. I love how this story establishes the rules but also the horror of the situation, that these women can be incredibly badly hurt and yet heal. That people can die in the battles they wage but no one will remember them. The magic surrounding them erases their contributions. And I love how that plays into a number of ideas. The first, of course, is that the story evokes the fight for "good" going on all around us. The fight for justice and progress. The fight that seems to go on and on unceasingly, and that as people grow they start to see that while they thought it was a fight that they could win when they were younger, now they can't avoid the feeling that it might always be a fight. It speaks to the invisible nature of most victories and battles and the way that people look away, make up other explanations about what happens around them. The way that people don't like confronting their own issues and so try their best to ignore the literally thankless work that people do in struggling for justice. It also speaks to the fear that people have in groups of friends of change. That they each want something that they can't quite name but are all afraid that the struggle has become who they are and that they can't exist without it. And fuck, yeah, this is a great setup and first installment to the overall story. There's magic and drinking and the personalities of each woman creates this amazing, archetypal feel that still manages to defy tropes. Onward!
"White Lie Sympathy: Ria"
I am officially in love with this project, and this second of the linked novelettes focuses on Ria, the group's leader, and a person occupying an interesting place both at the time of gaining the abilities (having newly immigrated to America and being without friends and without direction) and at the "now" of the story (where she is going to visit family and remember why she is fighting). I love how the story looks at consent in all of this, these women bound by choices that they made as children and by a magic that they don't full understand. A magic that works on their minds. And I like how Ria approaches this, full of hurt and fear, full of uncertainty and worry, but also full of resolve and a desire for order. To have these clear borders to things. Which the struggle allows. She has the good side and the bad side and she knows where everything fits. She has her reasons to fight and so she tries not to think so much that her original decision to fight wasn't made freely. She was dying, would have died if she said no. And she was lost, and tired—something that seems to have been orchestrated. She was _chosen_ for this, something that's talked around without really being addressed yet, and in some ways she made the choice for the group whether or not to go forward. It's a really interesting section too because it sets up this slight unease, that this is something that was familiar to her in an unfamiliar, hostile place, and that it helped her find a place, a way to belong. So there is a feeling in some ways that this has sprung largely from her (she was the fan of the anime, after all). And I just like the message here and am super excited to see where this goes!
"Fist With A Kiss: Aiko"
This story keeps examining the nature of the agreement made between the girls and the goddess, this time using the lens of Aiko, the most guarded and distant of the friends. And it's her resistance to be vulnerable, her resistance to love, that makes this part of the story so compelling, that she's terrified both of loving and having that love be something false. Perhaps because of her relationship with her mother she doesn't really have the same trust of the goddess that many of the others do. She resists, resists because she doesn't want to open up only to be hurt. There's a lot of pain in her, and a complete lack of trust that seems to speak to a foundational betrayal at some point. And I just love how the group slowly gets to know her, earns her trust, and how it makes her recoil, how she wants to hide from it, how she can't quite trust it. It's a great look at how fear can make relationships fraught, how (especially for those who have faced abuse or have anxiety or both) just hanging out can be difficult. Being happy can be difficult. Because it seems like it can't last, because it seems not real, because in this case Aiko just can't trust it. And the story does a beautiful job of bringing her to the point where she doesn't have to trust the goddess. Doesn't have to trust that the world won't try to hurt her. But she can trust her friends, and the people who do not let her down. And it's just a great and moving chapter of this incredible project!
"Only Fools Fall: Natalie"
This is seriously starting to mess with my feels, this story. We move into the penultimate section with Natalie, who is generally awesome but also (a bit like Aiko) emotionally guarded and a survivor. For her, though, being a guardian, being a protector, is what comes naturally to her, springing out of, to me, her desire to protect her mother from an abusive father. Natalie is also the second explicitly queer character (that I caught, unless someone else was ace/aro but I missed it), and it's her relationship with that and with Alex that defines a lot of this section. Which is an interesting choice that makes me SO SCARED to read what comes next, because her friendship with Selena has been very prominent in some of the other sections but isn't really highlighted here. It's an effective way to TERRIFY ME because it makes Selena into so much more of a peripheral character. Or…maybe like Selena is in the middle and everyone else is orbiting her. The story now is about her wedding but she is largely absent, which makes complete sense for the plot but fills me with dread. I am full of dread, dear readers. Still, I love the way this story reveals Natalie's desire to speak her truth and know herself, but also her hesitation to love and to be open about it. He voice is an important one to hear in the story, though, and I love how she anchors the group, a leader just as much as Pia but in a different way, more protective and compassionate where as Ria is more about the mission. But okay, time to press on to the final section!
"Kaleidoscope Heart: Selena"
Tears of happiness. AWWWWW!!! Okay, if it hasn't been abundantly clear before now, SPOILERS! Because I love this story and how it is about friendship and about fighting and about not giving up. I had said in the previous section that Selena has been a little absent in the rest of the story, and I think that was to set up this section, to create the tension but also to underscore something that I hadn't really realized through the rest of the sections, which is that Selena is the one character completely willing to fall in love. Which has a lot to do with her situation and her background but also gives her a certain amount of power. That she's the character who is willing to love and that _is_ a weakness in some ways. It leaves her open to this attack that does happen and that threatens to tear everything apart. But it's also what allows the final battle to be initiated, for the ultimate upgrade to be unlocked and performed. And okay, so the magic aesthetic of the story was always rather great, but I just want to say I love how this story takes these rather ridiculous elements, the outfits and the weapons and everything, and treats them completely seriously and earnestly and it fucking works. It is badass and I want this to have been like a thousand episode anime so much now because the character work is so good and the action a mix of cute and disturbingly violent and all of it is just great. The ending is huge and yet sweet and I expect everyone to go out and write me fanfiction so that I don’t have to say goodbye to this world yet.
But yes, I love the world building and the relationships and the many ways the story examines love and friendship. The way that it shows these women standing together to fight back against evil and winning. It's something that maybe I needed right now, because this year and everything, but it is beautiful and inspiring and uplifting and JUST GO READ IT!