Thursday, June 1, 2023

Review: Hybrid Heart by Iori Kusano

An intimate look at the interior life of a pop idol in a near future world where technology only makes the competition fiercer, and more isolating.

Cover art by Natsujirushi 夏じるし
In Hybrid Heart, we follow Rei, a solo pop idol in a near future Japan. For her, the pop landscape is filled with online avatar singers, competing against their more flesh and blood counterparts. Rei must be the most perfect, most precisely planned version of herself, workshopped and marketed and calibrated by her record label and manager, to try to keep her niche of success against them... or at least so she is told.

This is a story primarily of her emotional journey in response to this situation, rather than the events themselves. Things happen in the story, absolutely, but they are not the focus. Instead, they are backdrops through which Rei is prompted to examine her situation and herself, and begin to question how she's got to here, how she truly feels about it, and what she wants from life.

And for that, I love it. I love a story willing to detach itself from a focus on events, on action and drama, and instead dedicate itself to something else, whether that be atmosphere, emotion or, as in this case, character. To do it well, it of course relies on the character being a compelling one, but there's no concern on that score here - Rei is easy to love and easy to sympathise with, right from the start.

What this book truly manages well is the intimacy of Rei's interiority. We get so deep into her worries and her fears and her hurts. We feel truly embedded in how her manager manages every part of her existence, how he's driven her to extremes of food management, body consciousness, even just scheduling, and the technology that is such a subtle part of the narrative most of the time really helps to emphasise this. We feel, as she feels, how tiny and lonely and trapped her life is, and we cannot help but love her and hurt with her in that.

And it does this again with her relationship with her previous best friend and co-idol, Ririko. I adore how well Iori Kusano has managed the feelings Rei has - the realisation that she may have been in the wrong, and how her biddability, her desire to be the good girl, may have robbed her of her friend who was right all along. I love how they leave us with that sadness, the openness of the consequences, as well as the hope. We don't know exactly how it ends, ultimately, just that Rei has started to make the necessary steps on her journey. She knows the consequences of her time as an idol aren't gone or forgotten, and she must figure out how to live with them, and the choices she made, and that's in many ways a more satisfying ending than a neatly wrapped happy one could ever be, because it feels that much more realistic. It's an ending we can truly believe, and come out of hoping her journey keeps on going from here, one step at a time - exactly the sort of optimism needed, while still being grounded in the sadness that came before. It's beautifully, carefully, and wonderfully done, and I loved it.

We also see her reaction to her manager taking on a new - younger - talent alongside her, and begin to question what this means for her own career. And what this might mean for the young girl stepping into this world.

One of the most heartbreaking and lovely parts of this is Rei's instinctive reaction here - wanting to protect her young would-be rival. She wants to keep her from the hurts her manager has inflicted on Rei, and yet knows that she cannot. We see her fail, and make choices that result in different outcomes than she hoped. And again, this feeds back into how well-constructed a character Rei is. We still love her when she fails and fucks up. It only makes her more real, when her good intentions don't pan out how she hopes they will.

As may have become clear, this is a story with very heavy themes - body image, disordered eating, abuse by a mentor figure, stalking - and not a happy read through them. It's always difficult to tackle emotional topics like these, but Kusano does so with tremendous grace and care, so the narrative never strays into feeling like the torment is there only for enjoyment. Every decision feels like it serves the story precisely, and is presented from that intimate, internal perspective in a way that never feels voyeuristic. We are simply observing what it would be like to be with her, as she experiences all this. That restraint makes it all the more impactful and human. Rei feels, more than anything throughout the story, intensely tired, and so unable to truly process the magnitude of the wrongs done to her, and what reaction is more human than that?

If there's any flaw to the story, it is simply that you must be willing to just... be along for the ride of "what's happening with Rei". Which isn't to say that there's nothing else of value here - that's entirely untrue, and the light touch world-building of this near future full of biotech is well done - but it all loops back so closely to focus on Rei and her emotions, that you cannot escape that aspect of it. If you want pacey plot or deep world-building exploration, or even on-page character conflict and dynamics, this isn't the story for you. But if you are willing to roll with what it's giving you, to inhabit that character and watch as her life changes, and she changes with it? It is so absolutely worth the experience.

Personally, I'd be thrilled if we had more stories like this one, with such a care and interest in people and their being... people... while still responding to more SFF-flavoured worlds and experiences. Until then, I'll just savour this one all the more. 


The Math

Highlights: beautiful character study, interesting light touch worldbuilding, hopefulness 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Iori Kusano, Hybrid Heart, [Neon Hemlock, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea