As usual I'll review each story individually and then give a wrap up. From the offset I should say however that at least five of the authors here are comic book writers that I idolize ::cough Gail Simone cough:: so this may be slightly more skewed then usual. I take my comics very seriously (which is why you rarely if ever will see me review them, I get too passionate).
"Cleansed and Set in Gold" by Matthew Sturges A reservist member of the League of Heroes, named Wildcard because his powers are "variable", finds himself at the center of an ongoing conflict that killed the supposedly immortal hero Veraine. I couldn't quite guess the trick to Wildcard's powers. The trick is disturbing, though in all honesty I see the merit in it. While the basic premise of the story is one that floods comics on a monthly basis (uber-powerful enemy kills one of the greats and everyone else has to figure out how to stop it), the delivery is more than worth it. Wildcard felt realistic, like an ordinary guy who just stumbled into this hero gig. I did not guess how he resolved the reporter thing, or how he came to terms with his powers.
"Where Their Worm Dieth Not" by James Maxey Death is as commonplace to heroes as rebirth is. But sometimes the knowledge that you are one of the few who can--and has--returned from death multiple times can be more torturous than anything else. Oh this story made me tear up. It hit home a lot of pertinent facts about superheroes and villains--the whole game can be very like the myth of Sisyphus. While death for most people is the final act, how often has Superman or Cyclops or any hero been brought back to life through some weird invented excuse. I guess that's part of the charm, good will always rise again. Sadly often it also means evil will rise again. Maxey does a good job sketching out the consequences of that hope and how it can break a man.
"Secret Identity" by Paul Cornell The Manchester Guardian takes his secret identity very very seriously. At first I was really confused by this story. It was all over the place and didn't seem to connect very well. Cornell writes for the new Doctor Who, which when I read that made sense for how the story developed. The Guardian is a figure of power and protection for Manchester's gay community, which is fine except--why is the Guardian making time with the woman thief?! By the end of the story I understood better where Cornell was going, so I re-read this immediately. The disjointed nature of the segements makes more sense once the Guardian's alter-ego is fully out. Its a little campy, and since I don't read a lot of GLBT fiction (outside of yaoi) I was taken aback by the story. Not that I'm judging, but is it normal for GLBT to treat being gay as the societal norm and being straight as the 'sin'?
"The Non-Event" by Mike Carey Gallo lived a pathetic life, but his death? His death was really something. This is told as a 'confession' by one of Gallo's cohorts and 'friends', Lockjaw. A fairly routine heist goes wrong, horribly horribly wrong. I really enjoyed this story. I liked that it looked at the opposite end of the spectrum, how people with slightly off-kilter powers don't always want to be mass murdering thugs or moralizing prigs. How the smallest change in plans could be the factor that changes a relatively harmless heist into a massacre. I would have liked to know more about Gallo (aka 'Non-Event', he neutralizes the cause-and-effect principle as well as superpowers) and Lockjaw's relationship before the heist.
"Avatar" by Mike Baron The line between the reality of being a vigilante and the surreal life vigilantes live in comics becomes glaringly obvious to one ambitious boy. On the surface I wasn't very hopeful for this story--its premise is the argument you often hear from parents objecting to the violence of video games and comic books--but Baron handled this in a careful thoughtful manner. This wasn't a kid given over to impulsive acts or violence; he was careful to wait until he felt ready for the challenge he was planning to undertake. And I think if he had stopped after the first thug or two, things would have turned out differently. However as it turned out he got a little drunk on his 'power', his ability to take down guys bigger than himself, the 'revenge' he was seeking for years of abuse and bullying. Well he learns the hard way consequences of actions.
"Message from the Bubblegum Factory" by Daryl Gregory The former sidekick to the World's Greatest Hero has a secret and a new view of life. This story kind of made me laugh in that dark way when you understand what's happening. I've wondered about what the world did before Super-Heroes. Oh comics ret-con in super-powered villains or super-heroes as far back as you please, but "Message from the Bubblegum Factor" questions whether its a chicken or egg sort of deal. And why the world suddenly went to hell once Soliton appeared. Or is it a coincidence that the lawful Good don't die, that before Soliton if someone got dropped in a vat of acid they didn't get super-powers--they died. Its all really interesting, and sure the narrator, Eddie, admits he's insane, but he's the sort of insane I can get behind.
"Thug" by Gail Simone Which is worse--the guy who looks like a monster, but tries never to hurt anyone or the guy who looks like an angel and purposely sets out to hurt those weaker? Oh Gail made me cry, which isn't surprising since I've cried over her comics before. It took me a page or two to get used to the fact the writing/spelling is very immature (its on purpose), but I felt so bad. I guessed what was going to happen fairly quickly, but it broke my heart to see Alvin go through all that loss. He wasn't a bad guy, though he did bad things. He fell into it, because he lost his way and that one moment in his life made everything worse. The story is short, but Simone packs a lot of emotional punch into it.
"Vacuum Lad" by Stephen Baxter Vacuum Lad thought he was for bigger things than just an Insurance publicity gimmick, but is he really ready for all his genetics entail? I may have spent some time chuckling during this story because Vacuum Lad acted just like any other teenager given powers. Also this story has a lot more 'science' involved than any of the proceeding ones, which makes sense since even I know Baxter is big on science fiction. This was a sad moment for me because I couldn't understand even a quarter of what Dr. Stix was saying, I'm really not scientifically inclined (which is why I avoid hard science fiction). I thought this was an interesting look at how people can view 'gifts' differently. Vacuum Lad saw it as his duty to the people to help keep them safe (even if it was a puff job half the time). The Damocletians saw it as a duty to keep people safe as well, but in a less hands-on manner. I wish there was more about the 'bad guys', the Earth First League. Their motivations were rather murky to me.
"A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows" by Chris Roberson I could not, for the life of me, read this story for more than a couple pages before becoming completely bored. I thought I would at least want to read this since Roberson has written two comics I enjoy (Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love and I, Zombie.) But I suppose since this is an anthology, its bound to happen at least once.
"Head Cases" by Peter David and Kathleen David Who said people with powers can't have regular angst-problems like the rest of us? Peter David will forever be my hero because he worked on my favorite comic book of all time--Young Justice. Plus he helped create the too short tv series Space Cases. That said this was a fun and quirky story, written with his wife Kathleen. Ari just wants to strum on his guitar (badly), Xander likes to mess with Simon's head, Simon is trying to look out for his friend Vikki who is a dissatisfied housewife. The fact they all have powers of some sort is incidental. The sideline about Ari's once girlfriend Zola was definitely interesting. I've always liked how Peter David handles banter and wit, which was in plenty of abundance. I'd like to see more short stories about these folks in fact!
"Downfall" by Joseph Mallozzi A formerly unkillable hero dies and its up to a reformed villain to find the man behind it--even as it takes him down memory lane. Why yes this is Joseph Mallozzi who I can thank for Stargate SG-1, Atlantis and Universe as well as Big Wolf on Campus! None of that should be interpreted as sarcastic--that was all sincere. This was however a surprising hit with me. Mallozzi gave a developmental depth to the story that left me feeling satisfied, as if I had just read a novel instead of a short story. There was a couple of surprises, like the ending pages, but overall I just found myself enjoying the story and hoping for the best for Marshall.
"By My Works You Shall Know Me" by Mark Chadbourn Matt was given a new lease on life by his best friend, but is it possible that a betrayal runs deep? Mind-screw. This story is an utter mind-screw, in a really good way. And to be fair, after the first page I had a crack theory about Styx, that apparently turned out to be the truth so yeah. Told in flashbacks and recordings that Matt keeps as a sort of journal, we read as Matt reviews the previous year and his fight against Styx. This was a surprising read and the end is quite thought-provoking.
"Call Her Savage" by Marjorie M. Liu Namid only wished to remain in peace in the mountains to forget the bloody past. Unfortunately sometimes facing your past is the only option. I was mightily confused at first by this story. I know nothing about the 'crystal skulls' myth/legend (except that it was part of a very bad Indiana Jones movie) so the mentions of the skulls and what was almost, but not quite world history threw me for a loop. This one felt more abrupt than the other stories, it began mid-action and kept refocusing about different things. A lot of details were contained in this story, but I wanted to know more about how the crystal skulls effected Namid and others.
"Tonight We Fly" by Ian McDonald A shout out from an old enemy is all Mr. Miracle really needs. This was a sweet story about a hero (and villain) who both grew old and dissatisfied with the way the world evolved. It had that 'In my day!' ring to it. Despite this being one of the least 'superheroic' stories in the anthology (as far as actions go), I think this presented itself really well; superheroes grow older, just as villains do and everybody wants one more moment to relive their glory days don't they?
"A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (and Villains Too)" by Bill Willingham There isn't a synopsis that would give this justice, the title pretty much says it all. For anyone who reads DC or Marvel titles religiouslyregularly, many of the heroes and villains presented in here will sound familiar in many ways. Which is on purpose. This read like a Big Publisher crossover event--that is, it was all over the place in terms of story, focus and such. I liked how Willingham (who writes Fables for Vertigo, a comic everyone should read) organized the story--ABC order according to the character's name--and tied it together.
My three favorite stories were "Thug", "Head Cases" and "Downfall", though noticed a trend amongst the majority of the stories--that is a great many of them dealt with heroes who were gigantic jerks. Either as the main character, a catalyst for the action or holding some plot relevance. This was a little disconcerting for me since seeing heroes as 'bullies' or 'glory-hounds' kind of makes me despite them.
Surprisingly this anthology is probably one of the best put together I've read in a long time. Other than Roberson's story I enjoyed all the stories to some degree. They covered the vastness that is 'superheroes' and certainly proved that you can take a similar premise and make it entirely different but interesting in more than a dozen ways.
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About the reviewer
Alexandra Cenni (PRationality)
I mainly review books for my blog Poisoned Rationality, Amazon and Goodreads.
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Contents: Cleansed and set in gold / Matthew Sturges -- Where their worm dieth not / James Maxey -- Secret identity / Paul Cornell -- The non-event / Mike Carey -- Avatar / Mike Baron -- Message from the bubblegum factory / Daryl Gregory -- Thug / Gail Simone -- Vacuum Lad / Stephen Baxter -- A knight of ghosts and shadows /...