This book didn’t do anything I expected it to (well, except that one thing)
One of my day jobs is teaching a first-year writing course to college students. A perk of this gig is that I’m able to choose the theme for my section, and for the past three years, I’ve taught some version of “Great Power, Great Responsibility: Identity and Representation in the MCU”.
You read that correctly. We talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe in my first-year writing class. Yeah, you could say I’m not a regular professor, I’m a cool professor.
All joking aside, I picked this lens for our discussions and writing assignments because I’m a massive Marvel geek. That, and I think such a prolific and popular genre necessarily becomes a mirror that reflects our own values and shortcomings as a society back to us.
Great fodder for class discussions and essay prompts if I do say so myself.
Even geeks get tired of their favorite subjects sometimes, though. Or at least, this one did. Several semesters in a row of having similar conversations about the same basic rotation of Marvel movies left superhero stories feeling a little stale for me.
While the brilliance that was WandaVision helped reawaken my love for Marvel, I knew that what I really wanted was the opportunity to view superhumanity from a different angle.
That’s when I stumbled across a description of Mike Chen’s novel, We Could Be Heroes.
(Full disclosure: Book links below are affiliate links, and I will earn a small commission should you choose to purchase via these links.)
The basic premise of We Could Be Heroes is this: we have two protagonists, Zoe and Jamie, alter-egos The Throwing Star and The Mind Robber. One is a vigilante. The other a villain.
Both have extraordinary powers and no memory of who they were before waking up one day with a vague message hinting towards their powers and a lease to a rent-free apartment. They cross paths first as their super-selves, and then in a memory loss support group in a church basement.
Amnesia plus an unlikely matchup between a villain and a hero? Count me in times 3000, am I right?
I expected this book to be different from a lot of the superhero media I’ve consumed in the past, seeing as I’ve primarily stuck to film and television, but it managed to defy my expectations at nearly every turn.
The characters break all the stereotypes. For starters, the more physical, strength-based powers are the woman’s, not the man’s, which was definitely a refreshing twist.
Plus, our supervillain is actually just an awkward chill cat guy with a conscience trying to save up enough money to escape to a private island, by way of carefully crafted robberies only up to the amount a bank’s insurance will cover.
And our vigilante? She stops crimes in between food deliveries, watches a ton of horror movies, and has a bit of an issue with drinking.
I make a game of predicting plots as I read, and this one largely had me stumped. I couldn’t predict Zoe and Jamie’s actions and found myself surprised by a number of their choices and what they uncover about their pasts along the way.
I will say, there was one big reveal that I think was supposed to be a surprise, but which I predicted pretty early on. This didn’t really ruin my reading experience, since it’s always fun to discover that you’ve been right all along, and I suppose I couldn’t expect Chen to surprise me at every turn.
The story is told through the alternating perspectives of Zoe and Jamie, one of those things that frequently irritates me in fiction. Is it just me, or is this style sort of making a comeback lately?
Anyway, I felt that Chen balanced the voices of the characters well, and the snaps away from one perspective to the other didn’t feel like cheap plot devices too often (my main complaint with this style).
What I liked about the characters is that they feel like real, authentic people far more than they feel like unrealistic superhero icons. Here, the title rings true: they could be heroes due to their supernatural abilities, but… they’re kind of just two people trying to do the best they can under their circumstances.
In my class, I often lecture about how Marvel heroes are compelling because they are allowed to be flawed, but I have to say, these characters took that to another level with their vices, their desires, and their tendency to get it wrong. They are refreshingly close to what would probably happen if real people got superpowers, and it was a nice change of pace.
I’m sure the question on everyone’s mind is, will this book be on the syllabus in Fall 2021? That I can’t say because I haven’t quite yet begun to look at this semester’s revamp on my theme.
What I do know is that I’m pleased to have picked up this book, which exceeded and twisted my expectations in just about every way imaginable. It was a thoroughly gripping read that had me pushing forward to discover just what craziness Zoe and Jamie would uncover next.
If you’re a fan of superheroes or if you just like a good, interesting story with authentic characters at its heart, I think this book is worth adding to your list.
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