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An anthology of fifteen stories and novellas (several pieces are pretty darn long) about superheroes and -villains. Sure, we’ve all read these kinds of collections before, and they’re usually very much hit-or-miss affairs, but this is a really good collection.

I’ll provide a few thoughts on each story (with minor plot spoilers, but I won’t ruin any endings or big twists, I promise).

“Cleansed and Set in Gold” by Matthew Sturges: This is one of the strongest openings to an anthology I’ve read. It takes place in a world beset by seemingly unstoppable monsters who have already killed that world’s most powerful superheroes. A second-string super with a mysterious power must save the day. (And that quick summary doesn’t capture any of this story’s magic. You are just going to have to read it because I wouldn’t dare spoiler it.)

“Where Their Worm Dieth Not” by James Maxey: A dark, dark tale dealing with the themes of sin and punishment that riffs off the comic trope that superheroes and villains never really die, they always end up coming back somehow. These first two stories are so good that they make this perhaps the best anthology opening I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across.

“Secret Identity” by Paul Cornell: This one really looks at the issues of secret identities and sexual identities. The Manchester Guardian is one of those heroes – like Shazam, Marvel’s Thor, or The Hulk – who is a normal man part of the time who can transform into a larger-than-life superhero. But what happens when these two forms have different sexual identities? Frankly, it’s confusingly told, with unclear prose and a few too many Britishisms. I didn’t like this one much.

“The Non-Event” by Mike Carey: Second-string supervillains getting involved in a bank heist. Very interesting powers (and effects of those powers on the world around them). I liked this one a lot.

“Avatar” by Mike Baron: An ordinary person decides to become a vigilante. Brutally realistic and a very powerful story.

“Message from the Bubblegum Factory” by Daryl Gregory: I really don’t want to give much away regarding the plot of this one so as to not spoil it for other readers. I’ll just say that it’s a very good story, well-told, and set mostly inside one of those super-prisons they incarcerate super-powered folks in.

“Thug” by Gail Simone: Written in a kind of “Flowers for Algernon” prose format, this story is another of my favorites in the collection about a minor supervillain and why he ended up the way he did. Poignant stuff.

“Vacuum Lad” by Stephen Baxter: This one wasn’t exactly a superhero kind of story, in my view, being set in a near-future world where the worst nightmares of global warming believers have come true but is otherwise our world. There are no costumed heroes or villains, just a young man who seems to be able to survive exposure to vacuum. The reason why he has this ability is kind of interesting, but overall I was disappointed in this story, which just seemed out-of-place in this anthology.

“A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” by Chris Roberson: Really spooky and evocative pulp vigilante story involving Mexican magic and some other cool abilities. I’d love to see more stories about the protagonist.

“Head Cases” by Peter David and Kathleen David: The worst story in the book. Boring, boring, boring. Set in a bar. I have no real idea what happens in it, and couldn’t care less.

“Downfall” by Joseph Mallozzi: This story was way too long. Mediocre and not much of it stuck with me. Eminently forgettable.

“By My Works You Shall Know Me” by Mark Chadbourn: A hero and his archenemy locked into mortal combat as they each strive to take the other down in a long-term campaign. Nice twists and turns. Good stuff.

“Call Her Savage” by Marjorie M. Liu: A weird alternate history story, with the Americans allied with the Chinese against the British empire. The backstory is important, but it’s poorly presented in dribs and drabs, and never really sucked me in. Also, not much on superpowers.

“Tonight We Fly” by Ian McDonald: Cute little story about what happens when heroes and villains grow old.

“A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (and Villains Too)” by Bill Willingham: A nice long novella told in A-Z sub-sections, each named after a different character, that describes a massive battle royale by assorted heroes and villains. Nothing too unusual happens here, but it’s nice to see a titanic comic book brawl and its lead-up described in prose format.

As I’ve noted, I didn’t care for a few of the stories, but I have to give this one 4.5 stars out of 5 because of the strength of the remaining tales. I really, really enjoyed this one, and would love to see a follow-up volume, also edited by Lou Anders and featuring many of these authors.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers