Archive for Superhero Prose Fiction

Friday, Friday, Gotta Get Down on Friday


The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress

So here’s this fun little novel I stumbled across — it’s set around the turn of the century in London and stars three young women with interesting talents and general dissatisfaction with the way their lives are working out. Cora is a scientific and engineering genius who is frustrated that her boss, an MP and a genius in his own right, doesn’t seem to appreciate all she does. Nellie is an assistant for a famous magician, and while he does appreciate and support her, she dreams of having her own adventures. Michiko is a young Japanese woman, superbly trained as a samurai, but with limited skills in English and yoked to an abusive egomaniac.

What brings them together, besides random chance, is a villain — an ominous, powerful foe known as the Fog — who’s roaming the streets at night murdering prominent gentlemen and innocent flower girls, breaking into the Tower of London to steal the Crown Jewels, and eventually staging a daring and destructive attack on the entire city. The police are helpless, the greatest men in the nation are clueless, so what hope can we expect from a girl trained in the construction of steampunk weaponry, another girl who knows more about sleight-of-hand, trickery, acrobatics, and thievery than anyone else in the city, and another girl who is one of the most skilled martial artists in the nation? And if they know that their actions could have serious repercussions, what sort of disguises will they devise to protect themselves?

Verdict: Thumbs up. I’m not normally all that big on steampunk — I love it in theory, but it often doesn’t live up to my expectations. Still, I loved the stuffings out of this book — partly because it wasn’t entirely a steampunk story. You can’t expect a lot of faithfully rendered Victorian/Edwardian attitude — it’s really very anachronistic, as all three of our main characters generally talk and act like modern-day women. Honestly, I think that’s fine — this was designed as a young adult novel, specifically to appeal to girls, so I don’t see any problem with having our characters think like more modern women.

Which brings us to our characters themselves — Cora, Nellie, and Michiko are all total winners as characters. Cora brings the frustrated snark along with the brainy science, Nellie is part girly-girl, part swashbuckler, all enthusiasm, and Michiko is controlled, quiet, and generally confused by almost everything Cora and Nellie do. And they all work together really well. They all get individual moments to shine, and they all get moments where they shine as a team. They even get moments where they fail to shine, just to show that their not perfect, unstoppable heroes.

I am fairly impressed that Kress specifically planned to have Nellie be the character most fond of stereotypically girly pursuits, primarily for the sake of realism — plenty of girls like dresses and shoes and sparkles while still being awesome, so it makes good sense to give them their own character.

The action’s great, the mystery is fun, the plot twists are entertaining. I suppose I should’ve figured out what kind of disguises they were going to come up with, but I didn’t, so that added to the fun, too.

If I’ve got a criticism, I’d say I wish Michiko had known a bit more English. There were too many scenes that featured Cora and Nellie talking to each other while Michiko stood by silently. But hopefully, that will be less of a problem in the sequels (and I hope there are sequels on the way).

It’s a good book. Go pick it up.

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Hope for the Future


Wearing the Cape: Villains Inc. by Marion G. Harmon

The third consecutive novel in the “Wearing the Cape” series (technically, it was written second, with the previously reviewed “Big Easy Nights” written to bridge the gap between the first novel and this one) continues the story of newbie superhero Hope “Astra” Corrigan.

Astra has now completed her training and is a more effective superhero than ever, but after the events of the first novel, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. And since her relationship with the late Atlas has been revealed, her popularity has plummeted. The Sentinels have plenty of problems of their own, too — with several of their most prominent members dead, they have to bring in new members quickly. And there’s a prediction that the team’s leader, the magic-wielding Blackstone, is going to be killed. And worst of all, Chicago is gripped by a metahuman crime wave as a group called Villains Inc. starts a war on organized crime, the Sentinels, the police, and anyone else who gets in their way.

There are also plenty of changes for two of Hope’s friends — Jacky “Artemis” Bouchard, reluctant vampire vigilante, back from New Orleans, learns what happens when a vampire gets hit by a powerful healing spell, and Shelly (Hope’s old friend from high school, who’d killed herself in an attempt to give herself superpowers and then been resurrected as an artificial intelligence — she lives inside Hope’s head and serves as her in-the-field crisis dispatcher) sees her role in the Sentinels organization develop in greater ways.

So will the Sentinels be able to track the spellcaster behind Villains Inc.? Will they be able to save Blackstone? Can they keep from getting wrecked by Villains Inc. and everyone else coming out of the woodwork to attack them? And how is Astra going to handle going toe-to-toe with a villain who’s even more powerful than she is?

Verdict: Thumbs up. I’ve read a lot of superhero novels, and I’ve liked an awful lot of them. And I really do think Harmon’s “Wearing the Cape” series is the gold standard that all other superhero novels should aspire to. Seriously, it’s better than “Soon I Will Be Invincible,” which is a heck of a good novel.

I love the characters — Hope, Jacky, Shelly, the Bees, Hope’s parents, Rush, Blackstone, Detective Fisher, Lei Zi, and all the rest. I love the action — bruising, brutal, terrible, thrilling. I love the drama and suspense and the vast amounts of humor.

And I love the attention to detail and realism — there are plenty of ideas here about how superheroes and supervillains would affect laws, culture, the media, and more. And even better, all that realism doesn’t make it a grim, unappealing story, like so many other “realistic” superhero stories. It’s still enormous fun to read, and to re-read.

Seriously, the story starts with Astra fighting Godzilla — or at least a godzilla. And it just gets better from there.

It’s a great story. Go pick it up.

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Cemetery Dance

Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G. Harmon

Technically, this is actually the third book from Marion G. Harmon’s “Wearing the Cape” series, but it takes place between the first book (previously reviewed) and the second (not reviewed yet), so it’s not out of place here. Besides, it’s just two weeks ’til Halloween, and the whole book is jammed full of vampires. So let’s hit it.

Set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras — a long, long way from the superhero-filled Chicago where the first novel is set — we’re completely focused on Jacky Bouchard, reluctant vampire and the equally reluctant superhero Artemis. She’s in town to meet the grandmother she never knew she had — she’s apparently the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, and she’s pretty handy to have around — and she’s also doing some freelance work for the police, keeping an eye on the local vampires. See, there are a lot of vamps in N’Awlins, mostly because of Anne Rice — when someone who’s obsessed with romantic vampires has their metahuman breakthrough, they’ll often kick the bucket and rise from the dead as a vampire. And once they do, they usually head for New Orleans.

They’re even fairly accepted within the city. As long as they don’t kill people and limit their feeding to willing victims (and there are a lot of vampire fans in New Orleans eager to get snacked on), the police usually leave them alone. The cops don’t even have to worry about a vampire plague — in the “Wearing the Cape” universe, vampires aren’t able to turn their victims into vampires. However, Jacky herself owes her own undead resurrection to one of the exceptions to that rule, who was able to kill her and turn her with his own powers — and there are indications that another of those rare exceptions may be trying to build his own vampire army, which leaves Jacky with some serious problems on her hands, especially when she gets targeted for assassination by both vampires and humans.

Can Jacky track down the master vampire, survive the cutthroat vampire politics of New Orleans, redeem a fellow vampire, and keep her police contact (who has powers of his own) and her grandmother safe from harm, all without getting a stake through the chest or her head lopped off her shoulders?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This was a really fun book, like the other “Wearing the Cape” books (and I’ll eventually get around the reviewing the third novel, too), with excellent characters, fun dialogue, excellent action, settings, and mood, and a fast-moving plot. Half the fun of this one is Jacky’s down-to-earth reactions to the general craziness of her surroundings, particularly the fashion-obsessed vampires she has to blend in with. She’s a bit too hard-edged to fit in particularly well with the superhero crowd, and she doesn’t fit in well with the vampires because… well, she just doesn’t like vampires very much.

It’s a good, fast read. I had a seriously busy week — couple of weeks, really — and worried it’d take me a month to find enough time to finish this. But the story and characters grab you and draw you in quickly — I ended up taking extra time away from other duties just to spend more time reading. It was colossal fun, and, while it may not be a perfect Halloween book (you’d have a hard time bumping books by Ray Bradbury or M.R. James out of that spot), it still makes for a great late-October read.

“Bite Me: Big Easy Nights” is available for the Kindle. Go pick it up.

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The Cape of Good Hope

Wearing the Cape: A Superhero Story by Marion G. Harmon

Feels like it’s been too long since I got to do a review of a non-comic book, so let’s go ahead and take care of that right now. I’ve had this particular book in my “Need to Review” backlog for a while, delaying talking about ’cause I liked it so dang much.

So this is “Wearing the Cape: A Superhero Story” by a guy named Marion G. Harmon. It focuses on Hope Corrigan, a society girl and freshman at the University of Chicago — after a terrorist attack by a supervillain who calls himself the Teatime Anarchist, Hope winds up with superpowers of her own, including superstrength, nigh-invulnerability, and the ability to fly. She’s quickly recruited into the Sentinels, one of the country’s most prominent superteams, and quickly finds her life turned upside-down. She’s given a superhero codename (Astra) and costume (padded, partly to make her fit the expected superheroine profile and partly because she’s short, thin, and looks like she’s underage), and Atlas, the country’s most famous superhero, agrees to train her as his sidekick.

From there, we get super-battles, feats of derring-do, and a heck of a lot of training, so Hope doesn’t accidentally crush her parents when she tries to hug them. She has to somehow make time for school and her old friends, while also getting to know her new teammates, including Atlas, the magician Blackstone, the slinky psychic Chakra, the acrobatic Harlequin, the speedster Rush, and the vampire Artemis. And she has to worry about the prediction she hears from the Teatime Anarchist, that if she doesn’t survive the coming days, the future is doomed. But can she trust the villain who caused her to gain her powers? Can she even trust her super-powered teammates?

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a great story, lots of fun, lots of action, and pretty much everything you want from a superhero story. Plus stuff you may not be expecting, too.

There’s a great level of realism here — not so much that it stops being about people who pick up cars, run at superspeed, or read minds, of course. But we get lots of details about what life would be like for a superteam. For one, there’s not a lot of real crimefighting that goes on — they’re mostly there for serious emergencies, to provide backup for police and emergency services, and to deal with super-powered threats. Superteams also have large dedicated staffs of professionals — mostly working to monitor the police bands and dispatch heroes to wherever they’re needed. Also on staff? Clothing designers. Because superheroes don’t sew their own costumes.

Hope also has to learn to deal with her powers realistically — including being careful not to injure normal people. But she also learns hand-to-hand combat so she can deal with all the superstrong supervillains out there. And she learns why it’s not a smart idea to bash your way through a wall when you can go through a door or window instead.

But all the realism in the world won’t do your superhero novel much good if there’s not some action to go along with it — and this book delivers. From the opening scene, we get a couple of elevated highways getting pancaked into each other, and that’s followed by battles against superpowered gangsters, mind-controlled mobs, and plenty of super-terrorists, as well as an extended trip to provide relief during a catastrophic earthquake. The action is furious, desperate, bone-shaking, and just all around excellent.

The novel’s other big strong point is the characters. Astra, Atlas, Artemis, Hope’s parents and friends, Blackstone, Chakra, Riptide, and tons more — all are pretty well-defined, very likeable, and you want to read more and more about them. Harmon is planning quite a few more novels in this series, and that’s a good thing, ’cause that means a lot more stories about all these interesting people.

The lone point that I didn’t like? I thought the romance in the story was a bit tacked on and maybe a bit unrealistic. But it’s a minor point out of a novel that I really enjoyed immensely.

Go pick it up.

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Sisters Are Doin’ it for Themselves

Chicks in Capes, edited by Lori Gentile and Karen O’Brien

It’s always great to have a chance to review something that’s not a comic book, ain’t it? What we got today is “Chicks in Capes,” edited by Lori Gentile and Karen O’Brien.

We’ve got a pretty wide-ranging collection here — several well-known comics writers have stories — including Trina Robbins, Barbara Kesel, and Valerie D’Orozio — as well as plenty of other writers who aren’t as familiar with comics readers. This collection’s particular gimmick is that all the authors are women, and all the stories are about female superheroes.

So what do we have in the table of contents?

  • “Inanna: Witchwoman” by Trina Robbins — A woman living in an oppressive religious dictatorship learns that she has illegal superpowers.
  • “Mischief” by Elaine Lee — A shapeshifting heroine has a really, really, really bad day.
  • “The Birth of Lady Sekhmet” by K.G. McAbee — An Egyptologist finds herself empowered by the ancient gods to stop an immortal sorceress.
  • “Nightingale” by Valerie D’Orozio — A look at what it’s really like inside an insane superheroine’s head.
  • “Diary of a Superchick” by Jennifer Fallon — Proof that superheroines come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes have the weirdest powers.
  • “Kirby Girls” by Barbara Randall Kesel — A bunch of superpowered galpals hang out in a coffee shop and dish about life.
  • “Carpe Noctum” by Cathy Clamp — A heroine battles burglars and tracks down the secret villain who killed her mentor.
  • “The Survivor: Coming of Age” by Gillian Horvath — An immortal with precognitive powers takes a proactive approach to evil.
  • And another half-dozen more…

Verdict: Thumbs up. With some reservations. A lot of the characters in these stories aren’t really very heroic. Several of the characters may actually qualify as outright supervillains — D’Orozio’s Nightingale may be insane enough that we can’t trust her observations about who the bad guy is, Horvath’s Survivor is taking down bad guys before they commit the crimes she’s pursuing them for, and Kesel’s Kirby Girls seem more like the characters in “Sex and the City” than superheroes. There are other stories where the characters skate the line between right and wrong — or just sail right over it into gleeful evil — and non-heroic superheroes are one of the things that’ve always bugged me about a lot of prose superhero stories.

But for that complaint, it’s still a pretty good bunch of stories. The stories by Robbins, Fallon, McAbee, and Clamp are outstanding and thrilling superhero tales, and even if the lead character isn’t particularly heroic, D’Orozio’s “Nightingale” is a wonderful story with plenty of zing.

The other stories aren’t about cookie-cutter characters, either — some of the heroines are comic-book heroic, some are less so, some are tricksters at heart, some are more interested in the finer things in life, some are obsessively devoted to their quests for justice, and some actually do think a lot about shoes or gossip about their boyfriends when they’re not kicking ass. Thank goodness — I would’ve been weirded-out if all the characters were exactly the same.

And with one of the Big Two comics publishers so often going out of its way to diss superheroines and female creators and fans, it’s nice to see so many excellent women writers putting together a huge collection of stories about superheroines. There’s a lesson there for any publishers willing to listen.

Go pick it up.

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Keepsing the Faith

Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty

Well, huzzah, finally a chance to review some more superhero prose fiction.

This one is “Playing for Keeps” by writer and podcaster Mur Lafferty. It was published back in 2008 and won the Parsec Award for Best Novel. It focuses on the heroes and villains of Seventh City — and on the Third Wavers, the people who have the most useless and ridiculous of powers. They’re legally banned from dressing up in costumes, taking superhero names, or fighting crime. They’re distrusted by civilians, ignored by villains, and held in utter contempt by the superheroes.

There’s Peter, who has a superpowered sense of smell; Tomas, who has superstrength in five-second bursts; Michelle, a waitress who can carry any tray, no matter how overloaded, without dropping it; Alex, who can heal one square inch of an injured person at a time; Collette, the world’s greatest chef; and Ian, who can shoot powerful jets of, well, poop.

And there’s Laura “Keepsie” Branson, our lead character, a bar owner whose power makes it impossible for anyone to steal anything from her.

The action gets started early when Keepsie is briefly kidnapped by a supervillain called Doodad, who secretly slips her a strange metal sphere. And then every superhero and supervillain in Seventh City is desperate to get that metal sphere away from Keepsie. What makes it so important? No one will tell her. But they’re all willing to dish out plenty of pain and suffering on any Third Waver who gets in their way. Will the Third Wavers discover the secrets behind the world’s superpowered beings? Will they be able to survive attacks by the most powerful people in the world? Will they be able to keep Seventh City from being destroyed?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Really enjoyable characters — Keepsie, Peter, Ian, Tomas, Michelle, really all the Third Wavers. And the villains, especially Clever Jack. And all the superheroes, even though you hate all of them and want them to die in agony. Good action scenes, too — as desperate and frantic as you’d expect from a bunch of people with lousy powers facing off against people with really good powers. Good dialogue — nothing spectacular, but I was happy with it.

And it’s a nice brainy story, too. All the Third Wavers have useless powers — but of course, they’re not all that useless. If they can be leveraged the right ways, they become very, very powerful. I’m not telling you what they can do, ’cause that’d spoil too much of the surprise. But it’s often really good and really unexpected.

If I’ve got any complaint, it’s that the setting is a lot bleaker than I generally prefer in my comics-based stories. I mean, society seems to be functioning pretty normally, but nearly every single superhero we’re introduced to is a psychotic, willing to torture the Third Wavers and murder scores of civilians. Laws have been passed to prevent anyone designated as a Third Waver from using their powers to fight crime, and even nicknames based on their powers are frowned upon. That’s a pretty dark, grim setting, once you think about it a little.

Still, that’s a small complaint for a story that is, on the whole, exciting, fun, engaging, dramatic, and grandly written. Go pick it up.

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Dispensing Fiction

Dispensing Justice by Fritz Freiheit

It’s been a while since we got to review any comics-related fiction around here, so let’s get to it with “Dispensing Justice” by Fritz Freiheit.

This particular story is set in an alternate version of the 1980s — lots of movies and TV shows are similar, but technology has advanced a lot faster — for example, the Internet is fully functional and widely used — and humanity has had contact with an alien civilization. In 1947, a supernova bathed the Earth in radiation, causing widespread illness and death, but an interstellar civilization intervened and saved the planet. Soon afterwards, the cosmic radiation started giving certain people superpowers, and those people started styling themselves as superheroes and supervillains.

Our main character is Michael Gurick, a genius teenager who recently watched his father, a superhero called the Dispenser, get killed on national TV by a bunch of cyborg supervillains called the Demolition Squad. He’s surprised, however, when his dad then shows up to take him home from school — the government has assigned a lookalike agent to his family so no one will realize there’s a connection between the Dispenser and the rest of his family.

Michael’s mother isn’t reacting well to the crisis, so the Dispenser’s fellow superheroes in the Nova League take it upon themselves to help her adjust mentally and emotionally, leaving Michael with more time to spend with his friends, Kimball Kinnison, a normal kid who’s started to develop psionic powers, and Penny Riggs-Armstrong, daughter of another couple of superheroes, with her own high levels of associated kickassery. Added into this mix are Cleo Fox, blind daughter of Michael’s martial arts instructor, and Achilles and Andy Riggs-Armstrong, Penny’s twin siblings, who love to spend time finding new ways to torture Michael.

And complicating all of this even more? Michael has decided to use his own superpowered intelligence and his father’s old equipment to avenge his father’s death. Can he handle a task that his father couldn’t? Will his friends be able to help? Or is this all going to end really, really badly for everyone?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Now lemme warn you, the first thing you’re going to think when you look at this book is: “Holy hamsters, that thing’s over 375 pages long! And it’s got over 100 chapters!” But whoa, whoa, calm down, cowboy, most of those chapters are only a couple pages long, which helps the story and the action move along at a nice, brisk pace. It’s real easy to sit down at lunch, plan to read only a few pages while you eat your sandwich, and end up burning through 50 or more pages and completely forgetting about your olive-loaf-on-rye.

The characters are entirely grand — Michael, Kim, and Penny seem like fairly realistic teenagers, Achilles and Andy are quite funny every time they appear, and the banter and rivalries among the superheroes in the Nova League are handled very well.

The setting is also a huge amount of fun. While it’s somewhat familiar, the differences that crop up — “Karate Kid” as a movie about learning how to use superpowers, a home with a flat-screen TV in the mid-1980s, “Ghostbusters” being made with computer-generated special effects, and a vast number of geek-friendly board games that I wish we’d had when I was a kid — give you plenty of moments to be surprised by how the setting has been changed from the world we lived in.

And while the action takes a while to get started — Michael and his friends are pretty formidable, but they realize that they can’t go out and start fighting crime without getting some level of training, along with something that’ll bounce bullets, first — once the superheroes and the supervillains get down to fighting, the action is fast, furious, and entirely excellent.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and there’s no way to cover all the material in a fairly short review. There’s plenty of mystery about Cleo Fox as well as an incident with a visit to Congress and some mind-controlling federal agents, too. And lots more besides that. There’s a lot going on in this book, and it’s all pretty fun to read. Even better, there’s a whole series of novels planned in this world, so expect some sequels coming out before too long…

“Dispensing Justice” by Fritz Freiheit. If you like superhero fiction, I think you’re going to like this. Go pick it up.

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Empire Weekend

Finally! A chance to review something other than comics!

Empire State by Adam Christopher

“Empire State” is a sci-fi/fantasy/superhero/noir novel by Adam Christopher that starts out with a couple of super-people in 1930s New York having a fight so big, it ends up creating a pocket universe called the Empire State. It’s a darker, rainier, bleaker, more film-noir version of New York City — and only New York City. There’s no Jersey, no Albany, no Baltimore, no California, no Texas, no England, no Bangladesh, no nothing.

Our main character is Rad Bradley, a booze-swilling private eye on the trail of a missing woman, all while under the watchful eye of an oppressive wartime government, a shadowy religious conspiracy, mysterious bruisers wearing gas masks, a mad scientist, and a superhero called the Skyguard.

There are lots of sci-fi and fantasy touches here — robots, parallel worlds, super-science, mega-sized blimps, time travel, interdimensional mindtrip war — and the entire story is kicked off by a couple of superheroes who hit each other so hard they create a new universe — but the bulk of what you’re getting here is good old-fashioned pulp-flavored film noir. Rad Bradley is an old-school gumshoe. He gets hired by a leggy dame, he hangs out with a cynical newspaper reporter, he’s got a bad relationship with the cops, he’s got a run-down office, he wears a fedora — and he goes out investigating mysteries, just like any good old-school gumshoe.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Characters are pretty good. Action’s good. It’s got a fantastic hook. The book even comes with extras, including an interview with the author, a suggested playlist, and something called “WorldBuilder” that lets others write stories set in the Empire State universe.

If I’ve got a complaint, it’s about the lack of female characters. I think I counted four of them — one is Rad’s ex-wife, one is a murder victim, one is the lover of the murder victim, and the only one with a significant part to play in the story is the Science Pirate (not a spoiler — her identity is revealed very early in the book). But the Science Pirate never does a whole lot — gets captured a couple of times and is otherwise kinda generically villainous. Even worse, everyone talks about what a badass the Science Pirate is — until they find out she’s a woman, and then everyone starts disregarding her — “Oh, she’s just a woman, she’s no threat.”

Now that might be something you could excuse for historical accuracy — back in the ’30s, a woman might not be taken seriously by a lot of people. Two problems with that — first, Rad Bradley, the hero, is a black man, and no one ever suggests that he’s not a capable private eye, which definitely wouldn’t happen in the ’30s; and second, if the reader can accept a world with pulp mysteries, robots, superheroes, and all kinds of amazing science-fictional stuff that never happened in the 1930s, you can bet that the reader can also accept capable, non-background female characters.

And that’s a couple big fat paragraphs of negativity — when, really, I definitely enjoyed the book. It runs at a good, brisk pace, and it kept me reading as fast as I could all the way through. The mystery has even more twists and turns than you’d expect from a good pulp detective yarn, and the identity of the villain was a solid surprise for me, even if I could see, looking back, where he was being telegraphed to the reader. It’s a fun book, and other than that point about the female characters, it was a very enthusiastic thumbs up. Go hunt it down and read it, kids.

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Golden Girl

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

Author Carrie Vaughn is best known for her Kitty Norville series of urban fantasy novels, but earlier this year, she published a superhero prose novel called “After the Golden Age.”

The story focuses on Celia West, the only child of Captain Olympus and Spark, the greatest superheroes in the world. Celia, however, has no powers, isn’t particularly fond of her parents, and has done just about everything she can to distance herself from the world of superheroes and supervillains, so she can make a normal life for herself. It doesn’t do her a lot of good, though — she’s still a very frequent target for kidnappers hoping to hold her hostage to make her parents leave their criminal enterprises alone. Celia has gotten almost accustomed to it all — getting kidnapped just makes her angry now — angry that her evenings get uprooted by crooks, angry that she’ll have to rely on her parents and the other members of the Olympiad to save her, angry that everyone still seems to think it’s wonderful to have superheroes as parents.

On top of that, Celia is trying to start a new relationship with a handsome cop, the son of the mayor of Commerce City, and she’s been asked, as part of her job as an accountant, to assist in the prosecution of the Destructor, the most evil supervillain in the world and her parents’ archnemesis. That leads to a whole new bunch of troubles, as the Destructor’s trial reveals the darkest secret of Celia’s past, which leads to her losing her job, her friends, and everything else she’s worked for. But she’s now on the trail of the mystery of the Destructor’s origin and his connection to her parents and the city’s other superheroes. Will Celia be able to track down the answers she’s looking for? Will she ever reconcile with her parents, and does she even need to? Will she be able to find her own path to success and love? And can she hold her own against Commerce City’s criminals and supervillains without superpowers of her own?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Really enjoyed the characters, the dialogue, the excellent twists and turns of the plot. This isn’t the most action-packed story — after all, the main character is an unpowered person who is generally used to waiting for superheroes to show up to rescue her — but it does have its actiony moments, too, some of them very suspenseful and exciting.

Here’s my favorite reason to recommend this one: I read it over several days when I was really, really exhausted by the time bedtime rolled around — and I did everything I could to put off going to bed so I could keep reading the book.

It’s fun, it’s absorbing, it grabs you and won’t let you go. Go pick it up.

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Masked and Anonymous

Masked, edited by Lou Anders

It’s generally been kinda hard for me to take prose superhero fiction seriously — which is kinda funny, ’cause I’ve been known to actually write some prose superhero fiction. And it’s not like I haven’t previously reviewed superhero fiction that I liked a lot. But it used to be, if you had a book with superhero prose in it, the stories were mostly going to focus on either making the heroes into inhuman serial killers in spandex or turning them into contemptible buffoons.

Superhero prose has definitely come around since comics began to be seen as a more respectable art form. This book, “Masked,” came out in 2010, edited by Lou Anders, and most of its focus is on twists on the superhero genre that still come across as (mostly) respectful of the cape-and-cowl set, with a lot of the stories written by people who are best known for writing actual comic books.

The stories include:

  • “Cleansed and Set in Gold” by Matthew Sturges, about a hero whose powers rely on a secret just as terrifying as the plague of monsters afflicting the countryside;
  • “Where Their Worm Dieth Not” by James Maxey, which focuses on the question of why superheroes and supervillains die and are reborn so often;
  • “Secret Identity” by Paul Cornell, a wonderful and very funny story about a hero whose secret identity has its own secret identity;
  • “The Non-Event” by Mike Carey, a heist-gone-wrong tale told from the POV of a low-level supercrook;
  • the absolutely outstanding “Thug” by Gail Simone, in which we get the heartbreaking life story of a superstrong but dimwitted super-lackey;
  • “Vacuum Lad” by Stephen Baxter, a sci-fi tale about a guy whose power lets him survive in outer space;
  • “A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” by Chris Roberson, which focuses on a magic-using pulp-era hero battling demons in L.A.;
  • “Downfall” by Joseph Mallozzi, a mystery in which a reformed villain tries to find out who killed Earth’s most powerful hero;
  • “A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (and Villains Too)” by Bill Willingham, which is pretty much exactly what the title says — a complete superhero universe, wrapped around a big summer crossover and alphabetized for easy reference;
  • and plenty of other stories besides.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Any sort of anthology like this is going to have some good stories and some not-so-good stories, and I’m glad to say that most of these fall on the good side of the equation. Far and away, my favorite stories were the ones by Gail Simone, Bill Willingham, and Paul Cornell, but the majority of the stories in this book are just plain great.

My two least favorite stories were Peter David and Kathleen David’s “Head Cases,” which was basically a bunch of people with superpowers hanging out in a bar and doing nothing, and Mike Baron’s “Avatar,” which really just meandered about while a kid with martial arts skills beat up random lowlifes — and even with those two, I still found elements of the stories that I enjoyed.

Not a perfect anthology, but certainly one of the better ones of this type I’ve seen. if you’re a superhero fan, this is definitely something you’ll want to pick up.

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