Behind the Mask: A Superhero Anthology (Ed. by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson)

Behind the Mask is an anthology of superhero stories edited by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson.
Finished on: 29.1.2018
[I won this book as an uncorrected ARC in a Librarything Early Reviewer giveaway.]

Behind the Mask is a very entertaining anthology. Of course, there are stories that worked better for me than others, but overall, I had a lot of fun with the various takes on superheroes in this, stretching from origin stories to questions of inheritance, from every day obstacles to big fights.

After the jump, there’s more about each of the stories separately.

Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut (Cat Rambo)

Plot:
Ms. Liberty, X, Dr. Zenith Arcane and Kilroy share a pizza and the fate of being not-male superheroes in a patriarchal world. They realize that they need to strengthen their team – so they issue an open casting call.

The story is filled with good, feminist intentions, commenting on the sexualizing of superheroes that are read as female and featuring a not-male team-up, among other things. I appreciated the intentions here, but it was trying a little too hard, trying to cover too much ground and staying a litte too shallow with all of it. Kind of putting it in a nutshell is the fact that the story does feature non-binary heroes, which is awesome, but then they’re all aliens or cyborgs or the like – as if humans couldn’t be non-binary. So that just didn’t work out for me all that well.

Destroy the City with Me Tonight (Kate Marshall)

Plot:
Cass is diagnosed with Caspar-Williams Syndrome just before the end of high school. That diagnosis cancels all of her plans, revealing that she is intimately connected to a city. A connection that will stand no other commitments.

This story is not only beautifully written and absolutely devastating, it’s also a very interesting and fresh take on what it is to be a superhero and how one becomes one. I loved it.

Fool (Keith Frady)

Plot:
Dr. Entropy is ready to end the world and there’s no-one there to stop him. Which becomes suddenly rather disconcerting for him.

Fool is not a bad story per se, but it’s a story that I forgot basically while I was reading it. I just couldn’t find anything in it for me.

Pedestal (Seanan McGuire)

Plot:
Alice hasn’t left the house without her costume in a while, but she really needs to go grocery shopping. But there’s a reason, she doesn’t go out usually: there’s always the risk she’ll be recognized.

Pedestal is an impressive short story. I felt every second of Alice’s – rightful – anxiety about going out, but it in the middle of the stifling atmosphere, it also made me laugh a couple of times. Additionally, McGuire gets in some well-placed digs against the superhero genre and gives us a really cool superhero power. It’s really fantastic.

As I Fall Asleep (Aimee Ogden)

Plot:
Cerebrelle comes to in the middle of a fight, the body of her sidekick lying next to her – her sidekick who betrayed her. Cerbrelle needs to get her bearings quickly and try to figure everything out.

As I Fall Asleep builds on a very strong, interesting idea that I haven’t yet seen explored – [SPOILER] what happens when somebody with superpowers has dementia and isn’t oriented anymore? [/SPOILER] Unfortunately the story didn’t work for me in its entirety. It doesn’t manage to make that interesting idea into a really interesting story.

Meeting Someone in the 22nd Century Until the Gears Quit Turning (Jennifer Pullen)

Plot:
Greg asks Sandra out and to his surprise, she agrees, even though she has to warn him: she’s a cyborg – she has a mechanical heart. But that doesn’t mean she can’t fall in love.

This could have been a good story, if it wasn’t for the fact that the author, apparently, hadn’t realized that there are already cyborgs out there. And I don’t even mean in the figurative way: there are more than enough people who have mechancial parts. To make it seem like that this is a) a thing of the future and b) somehow a superpower, is weird. But when coupled with the fact that Greg and Sandra only have children who are missing parts and don’t survive and are somehow monstrous, what’s a bit short-sighted becomes outright ableist. Underlying here is a notion of only “pure humanity” is “good humanity” and that’s simply creepy.

Inheritance (Michael Milne)

Plot:
Oliver’s parents are separated, his father is always busy with emergencies – being a superhero and all. And Oliver, too, has to figure out his own powers and the family situation.

With Inheritance, Milne was on the track of a really great story: it’s often that in families with an absent parent, that parent becomes a superhero in the child’s eyes, with the present parent (who does all the work and needs all the superpowers) a nuisance. If Milne had dug into that particular piece of children’s mythology, this story could have been something. Unfortunately it stays away from that angle – and I stayed at a distance to what happened.

Heroes (Lavie Tidhar)

Plot:
Spit and Whirlwind are on a mission in Berlin in 1987, still cleaning up after the Nazis and World War II.

I have to admit that Heroes left me a little confused. I read the ending a few times, and I’m still not sure what happened (maybe that’s just a problem with ARC). That also means I’m unsure about the exact allegiances here and the moral of the story and with such a sensitive topic – like Nazis running around free even decades after WWII – a little more clarity in the positions would have been necessary for me to form any real opinion of the story.

Madjack (Nathan Crowder)

Plot:
Musician Atlas is the daughter of glam rock god Madjack. When he dies, she knows immediately because her alien powers go into overdrive.

Madjack toys with a lot of interesting ideas: music as superpower, artistic persona as inheritance and aliens thrown in the mix as well. Nevertheless, I didn’t quite warm to the piece. It just didn’t seem to get from its spot.

Quintessential Justice (Patrick Flanagan)

Plot:
Jaleesa works as a PR manager for QED. PR for a superhero should be easy, for the most part, but QED doesn’t make it all that easy.

Quintessential Justice was fun (the mole alone! or the “secret” identity) and very light. It’s not necessarily a story that will stick in my head for a long time, but I did enjoy it.

The Fall of the Jade Sword (Stephanie Lai)

Plot:
There’s a new superhero in Melbourne, called the Jade Sword. Mok-Seung watches Jade Sword, as she watches the new augmented bikes the kids around her have. And so she sees that the white people talk very differently about Jade Sword from the Chinese community.

I loved the setting and the way families are tied into being a superhero here: the balance of tradition and innovations. But most of all I enjoyed the way Lai ties race into the story here and the power relations that come with it.

Origin Story (Carrie Vaughn)

Plot:
In Commerce City, it’s only a question of time until civlians are caught in some kind of superhero or -villain action. Mary is caught in bank robbery when she realizes that the robber, Techhunter, is actually her ex-boyfriend. And he sees her recognizing him, making things even more complicated.

Origin Story was cute, but didn’t work entirely for me. I just couldn’t see why Mary would be on Jason’s side so quickly. Maybe if Jason had felt more attractive to me (or attractive at all), I would have understood, but I just didn’t get it. And I would have also liked it if we could have done without the kidnapping. But as a light in-between read, it was okay.

Eggshells (Ziggy Schutz)

Plot:
Penny is usually the first in line, the tank of the group, used to taking the hits. But then she slips on ice and everything changes.

I really liked Eggshells. It played nicely with the allegory of having or not having the words to say the important things. Or just anything, really. It’s emotional and well told. There was just one little moment where I stumbled (regarding Penny’s sexual orientation) and where I’d hope that it was again an ARC issue that would be fixed in the final edition. But other than that, I really enjoyed it.

Salt City Blue (Chris Large)

Plot:
Helen Marshal is a tough business woman whose life gets interrupted not only by Skyball and Crimson Reign who regularly wreak havoc on the city, but also by the fact that her skin just starts glowing. That also puts a damper on her plan to finally have a baby.

While I’m not too fond of the trope of the hard business woman who longs for a baby and whose tough exterior really is only a cover for a good heart, I appreciated the ending on a note of female friendship. But I was still weirded out how readily Helen would drop everything she ever worked for for a baby.

Birthright (Stuart Suffel)

Plot:
After bombs were detonated, designed to make women infertile, it turned out that it didn’t work as intended: instead the women changed or gave birth to changed children. Sara is one of them.

Birthright left a sour taste in my mouth. Starting with the fact that the women were targeted (why not make men infertile? Why not both?), and all of those sacrificing mothers in the story and then Joe, a native man Sara is friends with, who is referred to as “crazy Indian” and shown as the practically magically wise stereotype of a native. All of this just doesn’t fly and since the rest of the story is pretty much forgettable, this story is a fail.

The Smoke Means It’s Working (Sarah Pinsker)

Plot:
Dora has a new job: she’s now the handler of RescueBot 4, a very advanced life-saving machinery that just happens to smoke.

This story was sweet and pretty short. It’s a quick read without any great heights or lows, but I thought the idea of a smoking robot was rather amusing to me.

Torch Songs (Keith Rosson)

Plot:
Madam is one of the exhibits in a traveling show, a punishment if ever there was one.

Torch Songs wasn’t uninteresting. It tries to question the good-bad-division, although it doesn’t really subvert it, rather turns it into a bad-bad-division. The trope of “freak shows” is problematic, of course, but at least the dehumanizing of those shows is actually the point, so I can let it slide.

The Beard of Truth (Matt Mikalatos)

Plot:
Jimmy gets his superpowers quite suddenly: people around him start telling the truth. Although the powers also disappear again, he still reports it to the proper government agency.

The story has a lot of fun superpowers and I found the bureaucracy quite entertaining. What didn’t work so well for me is Lindsey, Jimmy’s girlfriend, proclaiming that her superpower was “loving him” which is not as much romantic as it is sexist (especially in a story which is all about the dudes).

Over an Embattled City (Adam R. Shannon)

Plot:
Emma is on a mission. Reality around her keeps changing, and nobody remembers hwo things were but her. She knows that there’s only one person who can help her, the last surviving hero: Focus.

I really liked Emma and I als liked the metafictionality of the story and its set-up. I do think that even more could have been made of the idea, but I found the story we got very intriguing. I had fun with it.

Origin Story (Kelly Link)

Plot:
Bunnatine and Biscuit have a hobby: discussing who is or was actually a superhero. They’re not really a couple, but then again, they kinda are.

Origin Story is beautifully written and the relationship between Bunnatine and Biscuit was nicely developed. There is some tough stuff in the story – sexualized violence and sex work under not great circumstances – but it was definitely a great set-up as an origin story for the kid and a strong finish for the anthology.

Summarizing: Some bad, some good, some really excellent – the anthology is definitely worth picking up to see what story works for you.

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