“Only about a third of all heroes go unmasked, and it’s almost always the women, like the people in charge of our costume designs want to be absolutely sure we’re not going to smear our mascara.”
NOTE: I was provided a free digital copy of the book for review purposes, but in the end I felt I enjoyed the collection enough to purchase a copy for myself. Apologies for the very (very, very) late review. And also for my absence here on the blog. It’s been a rough few months, but I’m trying to get back into doing the things I love–which definitely includes posting for The Book Wars more.
Behind the Mask, edited by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson, is an anthology that has some pretty unique takes on what constitutes heroism or humanity, super or otherwise. Like all short story collections, there were hits and there were misses, but for the most part I was swept away by the insight, the discomfort, and the sheer love the authors held for this special subsection of fantasy.
There are 20 odd stories in the book and I’d like to think that my favourites make the collection well-worth the read. I can’t possibly talk about them all, but here are 6 of the highlights:
- “Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut” by Cat Rambo: This is the first story in the collection and definitely sets the tone for the book. The writing is confident, the ideas smart, and the characters are complicated and incredibly real. The protagonist, Ms. Liberty, wonders how much of her life has been “programmed” and how much of it depends on her own agency–a poignant question, not because she isn’t quite human, but because she presents as a beautiful woman in a terribly misogynistic world.
- “Pedestal” by Seanan McGuire: Okay, I am definitely missing out on McGuire’s novels because wow, this story is incredible. Through the trials of main character, Alice, we see how heroes–or anyone on a pedestal–become something for entitled onlookers to consume and discard as they see fit. This short story is where the opening quote for this post comes from. Actually, pretty much every highlighted passage I have for this anthology comes from this one.
- “As I Fall Asleep” by Aimee Ogden: A poignant story about Cerebrelle/Lian, who has the ability to turn her hyper-awareness outward as well as inward, but for the life of her doesn’t understand why or how she came to be fighting her sidekick-gone-rogue, Badger Girl, who isn’t even in uniform. This one is all about growing old and retiring and how this transition toys with Lian, turning her greatest strength into a heartbreaking weakness.
- “Inheritance” by Michel Milne: This one follows a son who inherits his father’s abilities, but all he really wants is to have a proper bond with the man. Obviously there are entire character arcs devoted to the “I wanna be with you, but duty calls, sorry” kind of stories, but I found this one to be an exceptionally touching take on it: “People always try to write the story that suits them.” Edward grumbled often about the comics, about royalties, about how artists always rendered him suspiciously light-skinned and with a thinner nose. “The truth is hard and rough and rarely poetic … People like legends. They don’t like people.“
- “The Fall of the Jade Sword” by Stephanie Lai: Another one that I’ll think about long after I finish writing this review. With its atmospheric historical setting, strong characters, and timely commentary on disasters like Iron Fist, it’s one of the more compelling stories in the collection. Introspective, but also thrilling. I’d honestly read a whole novel of Mok-Seung.
- “Eggshells” by Ziggy Shutz: Pretty much the reason I was so excited to dig into this anthology was to read Ziggy’s story. Many fandoms caused Ziggy’s path and mine to cross, but I think Ziggy’s writing and my admiration of it is what will keep our paths crossing. This one is about a high school aged superhero who has a concussion while playing sports (of all things) and, because brains work the same way even if you’re super, she has to deal with the consequences. It kinda parallels how athletes are expected to get on with life once they’re conscious, but mostly it’s a warm and personal story about what this one particular superhero’s recovery looks like.
I did not feel every story belonged in the collection and some of them were kinda disappointing, but overall, Behind the Mask is an interesting collection that will certainly have you reexamining how you read, write, watch, and/or view superheroes. Or family. Or love. Or yourself. It’s just good fiction, you guys.
Do note that while I definitely recommend the collection, I kind of wish it were standard practice to have trigger warnings in the contents section of anthologies–the way that the Power and Magic anthology did–because abuse is definitely a theme addressed in various ways throughout the anthology and I Was Not Ready. Also note this book is not YA. I’d classify it as New Adult/Crossover.