Book review · short fiction collection

Book review: Behind the Mask

Behind the Mask: A Superhero Anthology, edited by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson

perf6.000x9.000.inddDescription: (from Meerkat Press)

Behind the Mask is a multi-author collection with stories by award-winning authors Kelly Link, Cat Rambo, Carrie Vaughn, Seanan McGuire, Lavie Tidhar, Sarah Pinsker, Keith Rosson, Kate Marshall, Chris Large and others. It is partially, a prose nod to the comic world—the bombast, the larger-than-life, the save-the-worlds and the calls-to-adventure. But it’s also a spotlight on the more intimate side of the genre. The hopes and dreams of our cape-clad heroes. The regrets and longings of our cowled villains. That poignant, solitary view of the world that can only be experienced from behind the mask.

Expected publication: May 16th 2017. 
A review copy (eARC) of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley. Some things might change in the final copy.

I was pleasantly surprised by this anthology. It managed to surprise me more than once, and I loved the diversity of all the stories.

Since they are all so different, here’s a little something for each and every one of them. Even if I have more things to say for some and less for others, I didn’t disliked any of them. (And a wider conclusion on my overall feelings at the end)

Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut, by Cat Rambo
I read, reviewed and deeply enjoyed an anthology by Cat Rambo in the past so I was super happy to encounter her again in another anthology.
Here, I was reinforced in my initial thought that I needed to read more from Cat Rambo.
We follow a team of super heroines, some left their previous team because of harassment, and others just want to join a team. It focuses on Ms. Liberty, a cyborg created by young scientists. She wonders about her sense of self. This is a story about love and heroism, and is mostly about the characters and their discussions, about genders and being a superhero in the world they live in, what they feel, while the fights in the city are just mentioned in passing.

Destroy the City with Me Tonight, by Kate Marshall
Wow. This one was such an innovative vision of the super hero origin story. It looks at it via the idea that some people got a disease where a certain city calls to them, where they must go if they don’t want to experience pain in their bones, and here they become a guardian of the city and its inhabitants, magically forgotten by everyone they knew. I really loved the twists.

I read these first two stories before sleeping, and I kept thinking about them. I thought that even if all the other stories were disappointing, I could not give this anthology less than 3 stars on goodreads, just because of these first two. They really blew my mind and I would totally have bought a novel with these premises.
I was excited to read this anthology but didn’t have any expectations; after these two my expectations went off the roof!

Fool, by Keith Frady
This one is about the “bad guy”, Dr. Entropy, who is about to finally destroy the Earth. Except pushing the button isn’t as easy as he thought it would be. What is a villain without a hero to stop him?
This was a really great story, especially for people who are fascinated by villains and good and evil. (Which I am!)

Pedestal, by Seanan McGuire
Oh how I love to read Seanan McGuire short fiction! And this one did not disappoint, once again!
About a young woman superhero who tries to live her life in anonymity, but just cannot because people are jerks. Still, it was really nice in the end and like the first two stories, I was not expecting such a level of emotion and positivity. She has a power that has to do with her reflection and that was something I’d never seen before. Perfect idea for a short story, because I’m not sure a full novel could have worked with this idea, but I wouldn’t say no to more with this character.

As I Fall Asleep, by Aimee Ogden
Here we are with a superheroine disoriented by her surrounding and trying to keep on doing her mission while not sure about what is happening. While not the best, the final twist was truly heart-wrenching. The central theme here is growing older as a superhero.

Meeting Someone in the 22nd Century or Until the Gears Quit Turning, by Jennifer Pullen
I don’t feel this was really in the theme. While the woman the main character fall in love COULD be a superhero, she isn’t. Still, it was not a bad story. But it was sad and deals with something I’m not comfortable with: child birth. Thankfully, while the anthology deals with this maybe twice, it was never in an awful way like I have encountered in the past in other anthologies or scifi stories.

Inheritance, by Michel Milne
About a boy and the powers he inherits from his absent father, a famous superhero who cannot stay home since he always has to go save someone or someplace. This was really sad and sweet, the difficulties of maintaining relationships while being a superhero is a big theme in this anthology and I liked how this played out here.

“People like legends. They don’t like people.”

Heroes, by  Lavie Tidhar
Welp this was a hard one. This one is set in Berlin and deals with war crimes and torture, when one person wonderful gift is used in the most horrific manner. While I found it important, it was short and I was relieved to go on another story after this one. I’m “glad” to see the nazi theme was only used once here on Behind The Mask.

Madjack, by Nathan Crowder
Another one about the offspring of a “super person”, tinted with rock music. It kinda made me think of Marvel’s Starlord, except the main character here is a young woman. While not much happened, I liked this story, how the main character gets to understand things about her father and about herself.
I feel I also can safely say this was a touching tribute to David Bowie.

Quintessential Justice, by Patrick Flanagan
Quintessential Justice really made me smile a lot. Here we are with some kind of superhero manager, Jaleesa, who works for the “Support Services Division of The Justice Guardian Brigade” and has to take care of a superhero (who talks in a very pompous way) who’s not very popular with the public but is still doing his best. Their platonic relationship was great and I enjoyed seeing them get to understand each other.

The Fall of the Jade Sword, by Stephanie Lai
This story is set in Australia among the Chinese community and in the future, where airships and augmented bicycles are normal. So there was a strong steampunk vibe in this story which I really liked. It is a story that really made me travel, but that I felt was very confusing at times. Still, it was fast paced and Mok-Seung was a great main character to follow.

“She sits by the window, a book in her lap. She’s reading The Art of War, a highly suitable text for a young woman growing up in a foreign land.”

Origin Story, by Carrie Vaughn
I’m not sure how I feel about this story. It was about a young woman who stumbles on her old boyfriend from high school, except he is now a supervillain robbing bank. It was entertaining but I don’t know how I feel about the end. I guess I would have wanted to know what happened after that. Still, the idea was good, not a bad addition to the anthology.

Eggshells, by Ziggy Schutz
Oh how I loved deeply this story. It is about Penny, a young superhero-to-be, and she gets injured while… playing hockey. She get a concussion which will affect her more than she thought she could be. This story deals with family, identity, dealing with a trauma and recovery. It was really a powerful story, in a very different way than the others.

Salt City Blue, by Chris Large
I still don’t know what to think about this story. Helen Marshal is a powerful woman, but not in the same way we’ve seen until now in this anthology. She’s a businesswoman, kinda mean to her employees and set on having the life she wants to. The superhero element here would spoil the story I guess so I’ll shut up, but I really loved the end, and still need some thinking on others. If anyone wants to discuss this one with me, do not hesitate.

Birthright, by Stuart Suffel
I don’t really know what to say about this one. It was interesting but I feel it was like a preliminary draft that an author would write about their world-building. For me there was something lacking, but I’m sure other people would love it. That’s the thing about anthologies, there’s a story for everyone, eventually.

The Smoke Means It’s Working, by Sarah Pinsker
This quote actually works super-well on describing the story so I’ll just live it there!

“Another day, another new job, and she was still no closer to her goal of becoming a superhero’s sidekick.”

Torch Songs, by Keith Rosson
Set in a carnival where ex-supervillain now sits and wait to die out after they’ve been arrested. This was depressing and ends in a cliff-hanger, but I liked the camaraderie that unfold between two old super villainess.

The Beard of Truth, by Matt Mikalatos
This was a slice of life story in a world where people can suddenly get superpowers, just like that. So when that happens, they have to call a number and state their superpower to be registered. Our main character here suddenly realise everybody has the urge to tell him their deepest secret or deepest truth that they wouldn’t reveal under other circumstances. This was actually very funny and the perfect length.

Over an Embattled City, by Adam R. Shannon
About an alternate earth and the main character is looking to put things in order, except everyone thinks she’s lost her mind. That was cool and I was very eager to know what was going on and how this would end.

Origin Story, by Kelly Link
So there’s two stories with the same title in this anthology, that’s weird but at the same time, considering their title and the subject, I understand.
I feel this was a weird story to end the anthology on. I didn’t really love that one, it was confusing with weird names, deciphering who was who and when they were talking. In the end I managed the figure things out but I was disappointing to end such a great anthology with that one.
Also, TW: rape.

So, I would TOTALLY recommend this anthology. While I didn’t love all of the stories (and it is totally normal and fine), they all had their place in here and I feel that the ones I didn’t connect with still have the potential to be someone’s favourite. This will make everyone see super heroes/villains in another light.

Some stories were lighter than others, some were really dark, but they all complement each other on what it must be to be a super-powered person, live in a world with super-powered being or live in the future… As a whole, it mostly showed the dark side of the superhero life, or the aftermath of this life, but it still was a great reading experience.

I also loved the fact that a lot of the stories had a woman or young woman as their main character. Plus it can be noted that there are almost as many women writers in there as men, with almost a 50/50 ratio and I appreciate the effort. AND not every character was white and straight, with settings variating quite a lot. So the diversity aspect of the anthology was another +1 on why I would recommend it!

While I expected to see some of the ideas in there, others totally took me by surprise and I feel this anthology is a beautiful gem, with a lot of original content in the growing theme of superpowered people, whether they are superheroes or supervillains.

2 thoughts on “Book review: Behind the Mask

  1. Woah! I’ve never heard of this book but this sounds like a really, really awesome anthology. I love villains, more so when they’re complex and not just painted as ‘evil’. 😀
    And OOH Seanan McGuire!! Now I am very intrigued. Thank you so much for reviewing this book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haaaa I’m so glad I could bring this to your attention 😀 Yes there was so many complex characters in this one, really interesting!
      And yesssss Pedestal was one of my favourite story *o*


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