Karma Girl—Jennifer Estep

No woman would come home to find her boyfriend slipping into a neon pink codpiece. (14)
I read this book as part of my participation in the online book club, Vaginal Fantasy. Most of the participation occurs on the Goodreads forum, but there is also a monthly Hangout hosted by the founders of the book club: Felicia Day, Bonnie Burton, Kiala Kazebee, and Veronica Belmont. Although we do read a lot of what could be considered "romance" books, the real idea is to read books with female protagonists, often in the fantasy/supernatural or scifi genres. We read two themed books each month. Anyway, I low-key love the club. It allows me to be introduced to books that I might not otherwise know about (see: The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin)—many of which are quick "fluff" books—and to have thoughtful conversations with other readers about those books and their themes.

This one definitely fell more on the fluffy, campy side of the spectrum. Carmen Cole, a reporter, discovers her fiance shtupping her best friend a half an hour before her wedding. And worse (?), she finds out at the same time that they're actually the town's superhero and ubervillain. In a fit of vengeance, Carmen takes pictures of the fiance and best friend in flagrante, and writes an expose on their real identities. Then she embarks on a mission of revealing the real identities of all of the superheroes and ubervillains. Unfortunately, as most revenge missions do, it ends in tragedy: one of the heroes whose identity she reveals kills himself. Distraught, Carmen gives up on her previous mission, until a trio of ubervillains in Bigtime give her no option, demanding she figure out the identity of the leader of their rival superhero gang or be subject to crazy experiments. Antics ensue.

I have mixed feelings about this book, and vacillated between giving it two or three stars on Goodreads. There were a couple of things that I appreciated. I appreciated that it didn't take itself too seriously. It was very clearly trying to be campy and making fun of superhero/comic tropes, like that all of the characters have alliterative names and the towns have names like Beginnings and Bigtime. The characters were sometimes one-dimensional, but in a typically superhero/villain kind of way, so that made sense.

On the other hand, I guessed all of the major plot points in the first 50 pages, with the exception of how precisely Carmen's power would manifest itself when she finally got one. Sometimes because of the campiness it was difficult to tell when things were intentionally awful and when they were just poorly written. Along those lines, there were some poor writing moments, like when Carmen was asked how she was feeling after a fight, and she responded, "tired and sleepy." Those two words mean the same thing...

I'm also not entirely sure that Estep knows the definition of the word "karma;" she alternately used it to mean something like an aura, a conscience, fate. And Carmen hits us over the head with the karma thing, and then after hitting us over the head, throws us to the ground and stomps on our head with her karma heels. We get it! You believe in karma! You don't seem to really understand what it means, but you're obsessed. Message received.

Another irritating thing was that Estep seemed to think that the readers wouldn't be able to keep track of the real life names in relation to superhero names. Once Carmen discovers the identities of the superheroes, whenever she'd mention them again, she'd say "Sam aka Striker Sloan" or "Fiera aka Fiona Fine." This didn't just happen the first time after we found out their identities; it happened almost every time after that. We know who they are. You made their names alliterative; it's kind of hard to forget. I'm generally not a fan of feeling as though I'm being talked down to by an author.

Beyond those relatively minor frustrations, there were some bigger topics that I know have been discussed before with previous books in the Vaginal Fantasy group. They also tend to be larger issues within books with female protagonists in general, and with romance books in particular. The biggest one is the constant threat of rape. Most often I've found this is used to illustrate the strength of the female protagonist—she was the victim of a rape or a rape attempt and she came out the other side just fine; isn't she resilient? Isn't she strong? I'm admittedly a bit sensitive, even oversensitive, when it comes to this particular issue. But especially when used in that manner, as purely a character-building device rather than a purposeful plot point, I find it unnecessary. It seems as though there could be other methods to demonstrate that. It's a rare occasion that you find men in books threatened with rape as a character-building element, or at all. I also understand that women live daily with the fear of sexual assault. That's a very real thing and I wouldn't want it to be completely absent from the books that I read. But it becomes a bit tiring when I read four books in a row, in different genres no less, that all include the female lead being threatened with rape.

This book even went a step further with some victim blaming towards the end. Carmen has received her powers, and rescues a woman in an alley from the same thugs who attacked Carmen earlier. Carmen then says to the woman, "Call the police and report the men. I bet you're not the first woman they've attacked. And don't walk down the street by yourself at night. This neighborhood is dangerous. You're just asking for trouble when you do that." (345, emphasis mine) Lovely.

I did end up giving it two stars rather than three on Goodreads, but I don't feel like I wasted my time reading it, and I might consider reading another title in this series to see if it irritates me less.

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