Y’all know I can’t resist a geek/romance crossover, so I had to check out Hero, a YA novel about a gay teen superhero that involves a love story. It was solidly written, painful, and touching, and although I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it’s like to be a gay teen it had the feel of honesty to it. However, it wasn’t very much fun. That’s not surprising, because it deals with some very painful topics. Not every love story or superhero story has to be fun. Personally, though, I want my romance to have some joy, and I want even my darkest superheroes to get at least a few moments to revel in their powers (or, in Batman’s case, their “wonderful toys”). I can’t fault the craft or content of Hero, but I found it strangely easy to put down.
Here’s the deal. Thom (Thom? Really? Is anyone named Thom? Commentators, please advise!) is a high school basketball player who volunteers with underprivileged kids in his spare time. His mom left when he was a young child and he has no contact with her. He’s raised by his Dad. Even though Thom is a nice guy, he is unpopular because his Dad is the retired superhero Major Might, who was involved in some kind of altercation that killed thousands of people, and even though the situation is murky, and Major Might may have actually saved the planet, he is reviled for the deaths of those involved. Thom is also unpopular because he is suspected of being gay, which, in fact, he is. Because Thom worships and depends on his father, and his father is homophobic, Thom must conceal his identity as a gay young man at all costs. Thom’s life becomes more complicated when he finds out that he has super powers and is recruited by The League, a team of superheroes. Because of his father’s experiences as Major Might, Thom is forbidden to follow the careers of or express any interest in superheroes, so now he must conceal his identity as a superhero-in-training from his father at all costs. It’s all very allegorical.
Thom’s growth involves two elements – his bonding with his fellow rookie superheroes, and his growing attraction to Goran, a fellow volunteer and rival basketball player. Goran was one of my favorite characters even though he is somewhat sketchily drawn. Everything is told from Thom’s point of view (it’s all first person narration), and Goran is a mystery to Thom, so he is mostly a mystery to the reader, as well. The fellow teammates are equally mysterious at first but gradually Thom gets to know them and figures out how to work with them effectively. This is impressive, as they are almost universally Blessed With Suck, especially Typhoid Larry, who’s superpower is making people sick, and Scarlett (for reasons that are not immediately clear to the reader). The other important element is Thom’s rivalry, then friendship with, and attraction toward, Goran. I think it would be safe to say that Hero “contains strong romantic elements”, but I wouldn’t call it a romance novel even though I like the love story. In a romance, the love story is the point of the book, the most central element. All that plot exists so that the romance can happen, although if it’s well written that feels natural and not contrived. In Hero, the love story exists as a device to move the self-actualization of the hero forward. Since his biggest challenge is coming out as gay, it makes sense that part of his story would be a romance, but the point of the book isn’t “will Goran and Thom find true love”, so much as it’s “will Thom find a place in the world as a gay teen superhero?” This is not a criticism, just an observation so the reader knows what to expect.
There are a lot of great things about this book. The characters are well drawn and complex and believable, and I cared about all of them (OK – most of them – there were several whom I couldn’t stand, but I wasn’t supposed to). Their powers are imaginatively horrible to possess and I enjoyed watching this team of low-level heroes learn to work together to maximize their strengths. I absolutely believed in the conflict between Thom and his father, and I never doubted that Thom’s father loved him deeply despite the father’s many flaws. I also thought the romance was handled plausibly, being tender and tentative and not promising a sweeping HEA. The writing was lovely, the descriptions clear, and the plot twists were nice and twisty.
The bad – I just didn’t enjoy spending a lot of time with this story. The problem wasn’t as simple as the story being painful, because I’ve read lots of painful books and found them gripping and touching and felt like a richer person to have read them, even if “enjoy” may be too lighthearted a word for the experience. With this book I was sort of soldiering through and looking forward to reading the next thing on my TBR pile. I also didn’t feel like the story gave me any new insight into anything. When I started reading the book I figured being the gay son of a homophobic father was probably scary and painful. When I finished the book, I had learned that being the gay son of a homophobic father is scary and painful. The superhero stuff is supposed to give a new angle to the coming out story, but all it does is give it more explosions (well, that and the enjoyment of Typhoid Larry sneezing on everyone, which really was awesome).
Hero was published in the same year as the excellent book, Soon I will be Invincible, by Austin Grossman, and the two books share a common tone and interest in the ways superheroes would act if they were real, flawed people rooted in a real world. It has even more in common with the more recent release, After the Golden Age, by Carrie Vaughn, which also deals with an angry, super-powered father and an alienated teen (in this case, a daughter, who at the start of the book is in her twenties and dealing with the repercussions of her rebellious teen years). However, the book I was really reminded of was Bitter Melon, by Cara Chow. Bitter Melon was a Sizzling Book Club read which many readers, including SB Sarah, loved, and that I admired but didn’t really enjoy. Like Hero, it contained a love story that served to encourage the teenager’s rebellion against a controlling parent. The love story was not central to the heroine’s journey but it furthered her sense of self-discovery. My guess is that anyone who loved Bitter Melon will love Hero. The superhero stuff is just a device to tell a story of self-actualization, and the love story is a step in the hero’s development, not the pivotal aspect to the book. I am giving Hero a B+ based on the fact that it didn’t grip me to the degree that I require for an ‘A’ grade, but I’m sure many readers would give it an ‘A+’ due to it’s fine quality of writing, realistic and interesting characters, and frank discussion of tough topics.