According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the term “superhero” dates back to at least 1917, and there are many characters from folklore, like Robin Hood, The Scarlet Pimpernel or Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh that predate the term. Like Batman, these heroes have no extraordinary powers. Instead, they rely upon their skill, cunning, training, the wearing of distinctive clothing, generally a costume that includes a mask and a cape, and, of course, having a secret identity to protect themselves and their loved ones. The idea of a super-powered superhero came to the fore in the late 1930s with the creation of Superman, Wonder Woman and an entire entourage of superhuman avengers out to right the wrongs perpetrated against society. But what if the idea of bestowing a person with superhuman abilities had occurred earlier? Say in the Victorian era of England, where someone who developed superpowers would also have to deal not only with their strange new abilities, but also the stringent societal strictures of that period. This is the idea that is charmingly explored by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas in These Vicious Masks.
Evelyn Wyndham is bored. Bored with her life in Bramhurst, just outside of London. Bored with the endless balls and social engagements that her mother insists she and her sister Rose, as young women of good breeding, must attend. How else will they secure their places in society by winning the heart of one of the eligible bachelors who also attend these functions. But Evelyn wants nothing of it. She wants to be travelling the continent with her friend Catherine Harding. Or pursuing her studies, along with Rose, so they can become nurses. While their mother has allowed them to see to the health of neighbors and friends, as long as it is done modestly, humbly and with ladylike decorum, the idea of her daughters actually becoming nurses is seen as spectacle enough to ruin their family and their name.
It is that threat of spectacle that paralyzes the Wyndham family when Rose is found missing. One morning, she is simply gone. Her room is a shambles, clothing appearing to be hastily packed and a trunk is missing. A note, in Rose’s handwriting, says that she has gone to London to provide care to a near stranger. Her parents resolve to do absolutely nothing. They devise a story that they will use to explain away Rose’s absence without divulging the reasons or cause, worried that if word of Rose’s disappearance became known, it would destroy her reputation, which is clearly their primary concern. But Evelyn sees these developments differently. She knows that Rose would not have written that note.
And she knows that Rose would never leave so abruptly. While Evelyn is convinced that Rose has been abducted, and she seems to have found clear evidence to support this theory, her family will not even entertain that possibility. So, Evelyn sets off, unchaperoned, for London to find her sister.
What Evelyn discovers in London is a world she had never imagined. Peopled with persons with extraordinary abilities that challenge everything she thinks she knows. Even more astounding, Rose’s disappearance seems to be tied to the fact that Rose herself seems to possess these extraordinary abilities. As Evelyn searches for Rose, uncovering discovery after discovery, she realizes that nothing is as it seems and the world is not nearly as boring as she feared.
In These Vicious Masks, co-authors Shanker and Zekas make a dazzling and enjoyable debut. While it is clearly a modern Victorian novel, with many observations challenging the pointlessness and prejudice of the societal caste system that was so firmly in place, it does offer a romanticized version of the era where a young woman strong willed enough, and with a sharp enough tongue, can manage to take on any obstacle or foe (although there are a few times where she does ultimately rely upon the kindness of others). The dialogue is sparkling, with the definite feel of an old Hollywood romantic comedy, and the characters are recognizable and nicely drawn, while also holding their secrets until just the right moment.
While the story is resolved believably, if a bit tragically, the last pages of the book seem to promise a possible sequel. Here’s hoping that that promise is fulfilled!