Peter Sutton & Steven Poore (Eds.)
Everyone loves a hero, right? Or an anti-hero if you’re into the Grimdark genre, or perhaps a fan of classic TV series like Blackadder. They’re always someone to root for, to follow along with, to cheer when they succeed, and boo when they fail. And yet it isn’t too hard to remember that said heroes wouldn’t get too far in their character and narrative arcs if it wasn’t for their loyal sidekicks. You know, the poor guys, girls, robots and other lifeforms who work as the supporting act for the hero – lugging equipment and weapons around, providing sage advice when required, protecting the hero’s back during a battle, and occasionally being wounded or even killed in the course of said protection. It’s an often thankless job, with long hours, poor pay and poor long-term prospects, not to mention only being mentioned in the same breath as the hero, and as such it seemed to be a ripe basis for a short story anthology. So when one of my favourite authors, John Houlihan, let me know that he had a story in Forgotten Sidekicks, a new anthology from publishers Kristell Inks, it seemed like the perfect collection to review, given my inherent sympathies for the person in the sidekick role, as well as my desire to try and review titles a bit more upbeat than my usual Horror genre fare.
The collection opens with The Bardic Guide to Disobedience by Courtney M Privett, a darkly humorous tale told by a Bard, the oft-maligned yet crucial supporting member of any band of hardy adventurers. She contrasts the official rules for Bards found in The Bardic Instruction Manual and Campfire Cookbook (47th Edition!) with the realities of being in a group and supporting the officially-designated Hero of the party; suffice to say, what the book says the Bard should (and shouldn’t) be doing has little to no relation with real-life. Our protagonist Verity has fallen in love with her Paladin hero Wilfred and is in a long-term relationship with him; they’ve faced many foes together, but their latest adventure may be their last as Verity tries to keep Wilfred alive in a dungeon filled with vicious monsters. Pairing each rule in the manual with the next portion of the story is a novel and engaging framework, and Privett uses it to tell a well-written, imaginative and often thought-provoking story about going against societal roles. I absolutely loved it, and it’s by far one of the best in the collection.
The Dilettante and Leonard by Desmond Warzel reminded me instantly of the classic relationship between Iron Man and Happy Hogan in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): one the one hand the charismatic, media-friendly saviour of the known universe, and the weary but loyal sidekick who deals with the fallout of the hero’s fights, ferries him around, and generally tends to his needs. But the similarities end there, for Warzel’s characters feel far more real than those in the MCU, and the story much more darker and intense. The Leonard of the story title is better known as Lenny, sidekick to the 21st Century superhero The Dilettante, and the man who tidied up after the superpowered masked man. Styled as an interview with Lenny some two decades after The Dilettante first appeared, and shortly after the superhero’s death, Warzel weaves a mesmerising and emotionally-laden tale of the bitter truths and often horrific realities of covering for a superhero. Warzel has a keen eye for detail, and an obvious love of the superhero genre, as each element of Lenny’s story rings true: the arrogant attitude of The Dilettante, the manner in which he used Lenny as a mascot, sidekick and mule, and the way in which lifes rules for the poor don’t apply to rich, millionaire superheroes. But Warzel also adds in a stunning twist that I didn’t see coming, which gives the story an emotional punch I haven’t see in many stories before now and makes it all the more enjoyable.
The Hour of the Rat is by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is set in feudal Japan, and follows protagonist Nezumi, a servant-girl forced into servitude by the death of her mother and the neglect of her father, and now sneaking into a noble’s estate searching for a form of vengeance. But the inexperienced young girl soon encounters the legendary Grey Ghost, a female assassin who seeks a target in the same household. A tense infiltration of the noble’s house then erupts into a chaotic, magic-infused fight with a gory and distinctly unexpected ending. Uitvlugt writes a detailed and convincing setting that comes across as entirely authentic for the time period, and the characters in the story have surprising depth for such a short story; it’s a great idea to set a story like this in a time period and country that is used so infrequently in the genre, and I’d appreciate seeing Uitvlugt follow this up with another story, or perhaps even something longer.
Allen Stroud then gives us Saving Simon, taking us into a shady and morally dubious world where superpowers (of a kind) are reality. It’s a gritty, earthy story that’s really well told, focusing on two people affected by the existence of these powers. Stroud presents us with a fascinating study of two singular individuals who have been thoroughly alienated: one by his powers manifesting since childhood without support, and another changed by service overseas and returning to an uncaring society that doesn’t understand how she’s changed. Together they attempt to use those powers to change society for good, but eventually start to get in over their heads, with dire consequences for both of them. Although a perfectly self-contained story, it just cries out for expansion, and I’d love to see some sort of sequel by Stroud that goes into greater details about the powers in this universe, how they function, and what that might mean for the world as a whole.
A Harlequin in the Shadows by Su Haddrell introduces Cole and Evie, highway robbers in a fantasy setting where magic is real – in the first few pages alone we’re shown telekinesis, glamours and glyphs in action during a daring night-time robbery of a pair of nobles. But it turns out that using their magic so frequently, and to devilish ends to make so much money over such an extended period, has had unseen repercussions that will entangle them in a far larger scheme than they’d ever envisioned. Repercussions lead to betrayal and pursuit, and a desperate attempt to stop a plot to break the boundary between man and mystical creatures. Haddrell has created a well thought out and engrossing fantasy world that I really enjoyed visiting, and I loved both the characters in the story and the overall atmosphere that made it such a delight to read.
Halfway through the collection now, Chrissey Harrison gives us Henchman, which as the title suggests looks at the life of one of the countless, generic henchmen employed by villainous companies throughout film, TV and fiction. Working for Dante Industrial is an easy gig for ex-Marine Jack Canning, even if it is boring as hell and his boss seems like a psycho. But when his journalist neighbour is kidnapped and hauled past his guard post, and then a superhero smashes through steel doors to find her, Jack finds himself dragged into something completely unexpected. There’s an intriguing blend of gritty realism and Silver Age superhero antics that works far better than it realistically should, which is testament to Harrison’s obvious skill as a writer, and I enjoyed the subtle take-down of various supervillain tropes as the story progressed to a climactic ending. It’s a memorable and skillfully told story, and Harrison is now on my radar to see what else she writes.
Charioteer from John Houlihan was the story I’d been waiting for in the collection, and as always he delivers a cracking, action-packed story. An adrenaline-pumping chariot race that ends in severed limbs and liberal sprays of blood is at once hauntingly familiar and yet strangely different; what at first might be ancient Rome is soon revealed to be an entirely alien world, with six-legged, crested beasts of burden, and nations that settle disputes with these charioteering contests. Soola is the driver for the talented yet arrogant warrior Nique, as well as his sister; yet despite her own skills, she fades into the background compared to Nique, who basks in the adoration of his nation for winning a grain surplus in this latest contest. Soola’s bitterness is understandable, a crippled leg ever denying her a chance at glory, and that resentment is an underlying current to her relationship with an oblivious Nique. Engaging characters and a keen eye for detail form the basis of the story, but there’s also some deeply fascinating glimpses at their world, one where gladiatorial contests can decide the fates of entire nations, which seems ripe for further expansion in future stories.
The curiously-named Just Like Goldfinger, Right? from Ian Hunter is in fact a grimly amusing take on the process of superheroes selecting official sidekicks. Rory, aka Subatomic Lad, is excited to find he’s in the last five contestants for the position of sidekick to superhero the Night Watcher, but apprehensive when he discovers that the final selection is made via a rather lethal form of training facility akin to the Danger Room from the X-Men continuity. He’s joined by several other strangely-named sidekicks hoping to join the Night Watcher, only for the contest to start and all of them to realise just how strict the superhero is with his training – unless they work together, the arena is likely to kill them all. It’s an interesting angle on the concept and plays with some of the superhero genre tropes in fun ways, as well as displaying some imaginative elements in the death-trap arena that Hunter creates for the latter part of the story.
Steve Dillon’s Well-Suited is a rather surprising tale, a melancholic view of what happens to superheroes if they manage to live long enough to retire and advance into old age. It’s perhaps not a total surprise that even muscle-bound, superpowered heroes are people at heart, and can suffer from the deprivation of age like anyone else, along with depression, alcoholism and a suite of other problems. Our protagonist is a freelancer for a small webzine, interviewing elderly retired superhero Aych about his glory years, and in particular his spandex suit. Dillon weaves an engaging and quietly emotional tale as Aych describes the reality of being a superhero that the public don’t see – or perhaps don’t want to consider; the stress placed upon them, the racism and sexism, the lack of support from the government departments and functionaries that were supposed to help them out. All that, plus a twist in the ending that I never saw coming and nearly flattened me emotionally, makes for an incredible story.
The collection closes with Sidekicks Anonymous from Jim Horlock, which gives us an insight into what a support group for sidekicks might look like, replete with anger, bitterness and frustration at not being given the recognition deserved in their secondary but vitally supportive role in regards to the hero of renown. Although there’s a comedic tone to the story, Horlock leavens it with some thoughtful takes on the role of the sidekick through the lense of the rules of the support group; how resentment and bitterness can fester in those cast aside by heroes once they’ve used up their usefulness, or are used merely as glorified storage areas by a hero who comes and goes every so often with casual arrogance. But Horlock also makes it a story about hope, change, and acceptance, ending both the tale and the collection as a whole on a rare high note, which made me appreciate it even more.
Forgotten Sidekicks is an extremely enjoyable anthology, and one that’s very timely given the current prevalence of superhero properties on both the silver screen and the TV screen. Whether it’s the Avengers, the Justice League, or the Witcher, or any one of a dozen different films and series being broadcast at the moment, there is a host of superheroes, supervillains – and sidekicks – on our screens. By their very nature the latter are meant to stay in the background, to do their jobs competently but not outshine their masters; and yet as this anthology demonstrates so effectively, there is a reach seam of storytelling to be mined by focusing on sidekicks and their stories. Editors Peter Sutton and Steven Poore have brought together a group of supremely talented authors to create a collection of masterfully told, highly imaginative and often thought-provoking short stories about those who fight in the shadows of their (alleged) betters. By turns comic, tragic and action-packed, the tales featured in Forgotten Sidekicks shed new light on the roles played by sidekicks, forging a collection that deserves to be read widely and often.