A Review of Masked Mosaic

I’ve written a couple of times before about the new short story anthology, Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (ed. Claude Lalumière and Camille Alexa) from Tyche Books. Mainly because I have a story published in it: “The Secret History of the Intrepids”. Well, the book came out a little while ago, and I’ve been reading my way through it, and so I figured I’d offer my opinion — a review.

So, yes, I have a story in it. But I’m talking about reviewing the rest of the book (which I knew nothing about until I saw the published version).

And, you know what? It’s actually very good. Almost surprisingly so. I say “surprising” because my experience is anthologies can be pretty hit and miss.

Masked Mosaic is in the mini-genre of prose super hero stories. Super heroes are more common in comics and, to some extent, movies and TV. But occasionally prose books are written using the idiom — often tongue-in-cheek or revisionist (almost as if there’s something inherently ridiculous and unsophisticated about stories of people with super powers fighting crime…unlike the realism inherent in stories about, I dunno, elves, or haunted houses). In terms of super hero anthologies, probably the most famous is the Wild Cards series (created by Game of Thrones’ George R.R. Martin) which eventually produced something like ten volumes (and even begetting a comic book spin-off!) Yet even the couple of books I read in the Wild Cards series were a mixed bag, boasting some memorable stories, and some forgettable pieces.

Hence why I say in all honesty and sincerity it’s really surprising just how good Masked Mosaic is. There’s scarcely a story in it that isn’t decent-to-good, or wouldn’t easily sustain a second reading down the line.

Now, up front, it should be suggested the book is a tad misnamed, as it’s not strictly a “super hero” collection. The theme is more “people with fantastical abilities”…which, when you think about it, describes a much broader range of SF and fantasy stories. Some of the tales here deliberately involve “super heroes” — ie: masked and costumed people involved in stories that, either tongue-in-cheek or straight forward, call upon the staples of the genre. But others aren’t really like that, just stories about people with unusual or unearthly abilities. As such, it’s an anthology that could just as easily appeal to general SF and fantasy fans as to those with a specific super hero interest…without betraying the latter (there are enough stories in that genre that the collection isn’t misrepresenting itself, either).

And, bizarrely, there’s barely a rum story in the batch. Part of that is because there does seem to be a focus on, well, stories. On plot. On character. A lot of short stories you can read tend to feel like vignettes, like literary indulgences, where you can finish the final sentence and go: “um…what?” That doesn’t happen too often here.

Yet there is definite variety of tones, styles and intents.

Looking at the first three stories alone shows what I mean.

“Nocturne”, by E.L. Chen, is more a character drama — think, I dunno, Raymond Carver writing a fantasy story. There is a mysterious super hero flittering about the city, but the story is about an aimless twentysomething, stuck in a rut, career wise and relationship wise, who has weird dreams and finds himself wondering if, just maybe, he is the super hero, but with no conscious memory of it.

This then is followed by Kristi Charish’s “Canadian Blood Diamonds” which follows the more obvious route in such an anthology of being clearly set within a super hero milieu…and spoofing it, with tongue-in-cheek. Yet unusually…instead of just being smarmy or campy, it’s genuinely amusing, focusing on a canny super criminal.

Then comes “Iron Justice Versus the Fiends of Evil” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which is almost barely a super hero story, being more a kind of occult detective story, about an ex-wrestler investigating disappearances and a cult.

So there’s human drama, comedy, and thriller…just within the first three stories!

And that continues throughout, mixing tones and intents and genres…but with mostly successful results. Kevin Cockle’s “Circe and the Gunboat” is almost more Philip K. Dick or Cyberpunk than straight super hero, while “The Shield Maiden” by Alyxandra Harvey can come across a bit like a pilot for a TV series like The Lost Girl or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, mixing humour and action. A.C. Wise’s “Kid Wonder” started out leaving me a bit ambivalent, because I figured I knew where it was headed (basically subverting the super hero theme by making it just a dream/fantasy)…but then it turned out I was wrong about where it was headed and it actually emerges as a quite interesting, even powerful tale. “Lonesome Charlie Johnston’s Strange Boon,” by Jason Sharp stomps about in the world of Jack London and James Oliver Curwood, with a fantasy twist, while Michael S. Chong’s “The Creep” is short, but well named, ’cause it’s (nicely) unsettling.

Actually, I think I’d better stop listing stories because the more I list, the more it will seem like those I don’t mention I’m criticizing. But I’m not. There are still plenty of other notable tales in the collection.

There are a couple of odder pieces that left me mixed — Patrick T. Goddard’s “Great Canadian Comics”, which is written as though the script for an old comic, and Emma Vossen’s “Not a Dream! Not a Hoax! Not an Imaginary Story!” which is essentially more poetry than prose (though even it I started to appreciate as I read it). But I can’t really say they’re bad…just not necessarily my thing.

As I say, the stories range from obvious “super hero” stories…to just more general fantasy/SF tales that in one way or another involve a character with unusual abilities. Part of the gimmick of the collection was, as the sub-title indicates, to tell “Canadian” super hero stories, but even that can take on different forms.

Some are simply Canadian by virtue of being set in particular cities — “Nocturne” is explicitly set in Toronto…but Toronto is, after all, just like any other metropolis, and the setting could just as easily be New York or London or Oslo. Others draw upon more stereotypical Canadian milieus and history, such as some employing the gold rush era of the Far North, or tying in Canadian minutia, such as historical evidence of Vikings in what would become modern Canada.

Yet none of these things should make the stories murky or unfathomable for a non-Canadian reader. Rooting the stories in Canadian cities, or drawing upon Canadian milieus, add depth and texture to the stories, and perhaps suggest plots you night not see in a similar American anthology — which is good! In other words, it can be likened to Wild Cards…even as there are stories and themes that aren’t necessarily what you might see in an American anthology, making a place for itself next to Wild Cards and other such books.

Actually, my contribution to the collection — “The Secret History of the Intrepids” — is one of the few that might conceivably seem a little too parochial (though I was hoping it would still be enjoyable even for readers who didn’t pick up on the references). And in truth, looking over some other reviews of this collection, my story — sob! — doesn’t seem to get mentioned much. Yeah, well…so’s your mother! Maybe my story was just too good for ya, whisking over your Philistine heads with its sly sophistication and…and…and…ahem. Sigh. Well, I liked it. *

And in addition, there’s a kind of Canadian vibe in a perhaps unconscious multiculturalism that creeps into the tales — the stories ranging from coast to coast to coast, big cities to small towns, drawing upon different cultures and ethnicities, from Mexican wrestlers to Asian super heroes to Viking warriors.

Despite my saying that some of the stories are less “super hero” and more people-with-powers, there’s a general sense of respect for the idiom. Whether treating it straight, spoofing it, or subverting it, you don’t necessarily feel as though the writers considered themselves superior to their material (unlike some super hero anthologies I’ve read where there’s a distinct feeling the writers either had little interest in the genre…or approached it with a condescending affection).

But if I was to make a general criticism, it’s that most of the heroes and powers are fairly generic. A lot of flying. A lot of super strength. There aren’t too many stories here featuring characters where you go: “Wow! What a neat idea for a super hero! A character like that could get his/her own comic!” Now since these are generally stand alone stories featuring characters not meant to exist past the final page, it’s understandable that the writers focused more on the plot/characerization rather than coming up with some off beat powers. But, still…

Yeah, I’ve got a story in the book…but even if I didn’t, it’s still a pretty darn good collection!

* Post-script July 1: Since there’s a fine line between jovially self-depecrating and whiney and self-pitying, I should point out that my story, “The Secret History of the Intrepids”, has received some nice comments. In this review at the Canadian comic book-themed blog, They Stand on Guard, the reviewer even says it may be his “favourite” story in the collection and it “packs a lot…in 20 pages”. Sweet!

ALSo — post-script 2 — I realize I should caution Masked Mosaic does contain some adult language and themes! Not my piece, particularly (and most aren’t trying to be especially shocking or gratuitous).

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