I wrote my review for Jeremy Zimmerman's Kensei while anticipating the sequel, The Love of Danger, which I recommended when it was on Kickstarter. Zimmerman himself edits Mad Scientist Journal and has worked to produce the anthologies That Ain't Right: Historical Accounts of the Miskatonic Valley and Selfies from the End of the World. He's on twitter at @bolthy, where he can always be found being, as far as I can tell, a genuinely good dude.
In my review of Kensei, I was impressed with how comprehensively Zimmerman drew on influences from film, gaming, mythology, religion, and more without having the book ever once feel like it required a member's card to enter. I enjoyed the lived-in worldbuilding (perhaps owing in part to Cobalt City being a shared fictional universe -- from the nonfictional mind of Nathan Crowder), and appreciated that this was a world lived in by lots of different kinds of people. For example: Japanese/African American Lesbian* Superhero Teen Jamie Hattori.
At the same time, I felt the novel played it too safe in some key ways: language, sex, and even violence all felt oddly conservative for a book that was otherwise pushing boundaries where it could find them, and I wasn't personally satisfied accepting those as YA limitations.
So how does all of this carry over into the sequel? If that's where we were, where have we come? To start, here's the jacket blurb for The Love of Danger just to get us all up to speed:
Jamie Hattori can't get a break. As the superhero Kensei, she defeated the goddess Eris and figured her life could just get back to normal. Or, at least, as normal as things can be when you fight crime and can talk to the spirit world. But now her girlfriend is flaking out on her, her parents have separated, and a World War Two supervillain has come back from the dead with plots to kill Jamie.
As if that wasn't bad enough, she has to deal with two of her least favorite people: her grandparents.
I'm happy to say that so much of what I liked about Kensei continue to be highlights of the sequel, and I'm even happier to say that in my opinion The Love of Danger takes more confident and satisfying risks than its predecessor.
If Kensei drew its conflict from the fact of exclusion between social groups and the desire to be included despite social boundaries, which are framed in terms of the teenage versions of these problems, The Love of Danger pulls back from the social tensions of adolescent life and focuses in on the personal ones. Each major character is struggling not with their position in the group but with their own developing senses of identity. Jaime's grandparents impose themselves on her life, drawing into question what she's come from and how that determines or fails to determine who she is. Her relationship with Parker skids across some very well-drawn rocks, reminding her that her present isn't stable, and making her question her future. Does she want to be a hero? Does she want to have a girlfriend? Without giving too much away, there's a moment when we learn that an aspect of her spirit manifests as a masculine figure, and she honestly doesn't know what that means about her own gender identity.
This struggle is just as present in the others. Local "Cordelia" Sabrina, who you may remember from the last book as the Catholic cheerleader whose parents sent her to re-education camp to cure her homosexuality. That very personal struggle continues in this book, and is probably my favorite thing about it. Early on, Sabrina is imbued with the powers of Joan of Arc and takes on her own mask. The gift of these powers, though, is in some ways dependent on her suffering for her faith. Her sexuality represents a temptation that she must deny herself to prove her spiritual strength, even to herself (this isn't a purely Catholic idea, I would note. I've heard of Gandhi's... unusual... methods for testing his ability to overcome temptation; American culture in many ways promotes a way of thinking about life that requires self-denial as an excuse for excess -- it's A Thing). To Jamie, and indeed to me, this denial is insane. Sabrina's refusal to accept her sexuality can not be mentally healthy; the role her parents played in enforcing that self-denial downright cruel and abusive. And yet the narrative plays a more complicated, more compassionate game. The book does not share Jamie's point of view; the book suggests that Sabrina needs to self-determine, and if she determines that she is happier with herself when parts of her that I feel should be indulged are in fact denied, then that is her call. It's one of these very tight, fine, wonderful lines being drawn between the reader, the character, the narrator and, for all I know -- and I don't -- the author.
I am also pleased to see this book push its sex, language, and violence all a little further, the former two feeling true to the ages of the characters in a way that felt missing before and the latter feeling true to the fact that these are people who are literally fighting for their lives. It's occasionally very bloody, and that's honest to Jamie's life.
I could go on about more. The world feels bigger. The stakes feel higher. The mysteries that are isolated to this book build and resolve in satisfying ways. The mysteries that belong to the series also grow enough to keep you hooked into the next book without revealing so much as to draw attention away from the more pressing narrative. I could go on about these things, and they are all positives, but I don't have an unlimited amount of time to write this review. And there's one more thing I want to spend some time with before I close.
I want to briefly discuss a flaw that is probably my own and not the book's, and it has to do with the way social justice issues pop up in the text. While I loved the way Sabrina's struggle for identity was handled, because it's not enough for me to think that accepting Jamie's self-identification is important if my attitude toward Sabrina is that she self-identifies wrong. But there are places throughout The Love of Danger that do feel are editorializing, or that do read a bit like sections from a social justice textbook. The moments are interesting, and they are, I think, quite often correct, but they also disrupt immersion. And I hate that I feel compelled to criticize this because it's not the book's problem. Let me explain. I am perfectly on record as saying that I don't believe a book can possibly be apolitical and, secondarily, I think writers do have a responsibility to confront the politics of their own writing. Secondarily to that, I've long-since decided that I support any narrative choice to just not give a fuck about supporting social justice. I think that to some extent the push against authorial editorializing is a deeply coded way of enforcing the silence of voices that would otherwise use fiction to speak out. So my instinct to recoil from anything that feels like a message -- even when I support the message on principle -- feels wrong to me. It's an instinct that was developed in a culture that wants fiction to be apolitical. But I don't believe that's possible. So it's the instinct that is wrong, not the book. And if editorialized writing is a bit more of a hammer than a chisel, so what? Sometimes we need hammers.
I suppose your mileage may vary?
Overall, though, I think The Love of Danger is a rousing success. The things that Kensei did well continue to be done well, and most of the things that left me feeling more reserved about the original no longer apply. It feels like Zimmerman is pushing himself and his characters and his world all a little bit more this time around, and I'm looking forward to seeing how much more he can push in the next one.
You can get your own copy of The Love of Danger from Amazon.
*I described Jamie as bisexual in my first review; I'm not sure if this was my own mistake -- totally possible! -- or whether her own sense of identity has shifted between books, as it does with teens, but she very clearly identifies as lesbian here.