Rehab For Superheroes: “The Crimson Mistress” by Ann Livi Andrews (Review)

*** Guest Post by author Nathan Wall, who you can find here. You can also get your copy of “The Crimson Mistress” here.***

Superheroes! Did someone say SUPER-FREAKING-HEROES?!?!

OK, so I must admit, when Ann Livi Andrews was nominated for my Holiday Give Back Book Blast—and I was told she’d written several books taking on an interpretation of the superhero genre—she shot to the top of my list. Even though Andrews had written several other books in Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Dystopian genres, there was nothing else from her I would have accepted.

I have quite the affinity for superheroes. I’m mean, shit, take a look at my son’s bedroom.

Superheroes are great not because I still day dream about running around in capes and tights, fighting bad guys and hanging around vixens with boobs so large, and waists so tiny, that they should topple over or have serious back problems.

How is Harley Quinn so nimble?

No, I like superheroes because they’re our modern day mythological gods and yet they represent something we could become. Also, while most of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy world is busy arguing about how completely different both genres are (they’re really not, hate to burst your bubble), the Superhero genre is minding its own business, attracting stars like Christian Bale and Robert Downey Jr., and making BILLIONS of dollars successfully not giving a flying falafel as it straddles the line between fantasy and sci-fi.

That’s right. They do it both.

A world where Tony Stark can create a super suit and fight the likes of the god Thor is only possible if you marry both genres. I know the cinematic universe has opted for the “Norse gods are aliens” route, but in true superhero lore, the SF likes of Superman, Flash and Green Lantern coexist perfectly with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam. Then you’ve got Batman, in the middle, balancing both and make shit-tons of money because he’s really the coolest of them all.

I was Batman at Six Flags B-T-W. Awesome job, but damn that suit was hot. Coed changing rooms if you know what I mean. Anyway…back to the topic.

The Crimson Mistress. What’s it about? Let’s start with Andrew’s pitch:

The life of a superhero is not all glamour and fame. The truth is that they just want to live as close to normal lives as they possibly can, and they’ve found a man who they believe can offer that to them. Not only does he promise to find cures for their “powers,” but he offers a retirement plan as well! However, the question remains: is it possible for a super hero to live a normal life away from the public eye?

So, before I started the book, I got a definite ‘celebrity rehab’ vibe. I was super stoked. It seemed as though there would be a slight humorous twist to the plot, yet the cover evoked something dark, and that last question posed by the pitch suggested a real inner struggle. That’s awesome because the Superhero genre SHOULD be all those things.

***DISCLAIMER***

Since this review will be part of a series of reviews, let me establish the criteria for these reviews. First, each review will only cover the first quarter or 25k words of a novel, whichever comes first. These are preview reviews, after all. However, since “Rehab For Superheroes” was sold as a group package of short stories (Crimson Mistress was barely 12k words), I decided to read the entire book. Even though I read the whole thing, it’ll still be the least amount of words I read per author over the next month. So, get over it.

Second, the criteria: plot, character, action, editing and cover. These are all things that should be well underway or engaging in areas to a high degree before an author reaches the quarter mark of their book. If they’ve not succeeded by then, the average reader will not continue. Yes, characters should evolve in a story, some parts will have more action, and the plot won’t always be obvious, but little bits of each, and a lot of one, should really be driving your story early on.

So, how did Crimson Mistress stack up?

Plot:

Our heroine, Quinnley, aka the Crimson Mistress, is in the midst of what could be called a mid-life crisis for a Superhero. It’s unclear from the opening of the book (not a good sign) as to whether or not she’s completely hung up the mantle of Crimson Mistress, but for the large majority of the book’s timeline, she seems to have long since retired and occasionally come back. That part was not entirely central to what was going on. So, I moved past it.

Quinnley’s main problem, the one thing allowing her to be the Crimson Mistress, is the one thing slowly tearing her apart. She can’t get through missions without feeling her limbs and chest rotting on the inside.

That’s when she runs into Michael: a mysterious figure with “brilliant blue eyes expressing both mirth and attraction.” Michael knows from the onset that Quinnley is the Crimson Mistress, though she tries to play it off casually. He knows what is wrong with her because he knows what gives her powers. This makes Michael a formidable foe, but Quinnley quickly arrests him anyway and the story picks up a year later.

I mean, shit, this dude not only knows for sure you’re the Crimson Mistress, but he knows your weaknesses, your strengths, your origins and what’s wrong with you. So, you do what any Superhero would do and detain him to question further bash his head into a car and knock him out. And….that should do it. Case closed. I think I’m safe. Dust off my hands and get some Piña coladas.

Right…

The rest of the novel is this cat and mouse game between Michael (Tom) and Quinnley (Jerry). I can see how this short story was compared to Arkham Asylum, though I feel its plot is much more in-line with Arkham Origins. That may be a small nitpick, certainly not a deal breaker, but the gist of both Arkham Origins and Crimson Mistress is that central bad guys, the Black Mask and Michael, put out a large hit on their respective adversaries, Batman and Crimson Mistress. To make things worse for Quinnley is that Michael has spilled the beans about her secret identity. Yeah, didn’t really see that one coming back to haunt ya…

Characters:

There are really only three characters we get any sort of glimpse into. Since the entire story is told from Quinnley’s 3rd limited POV, we obviously get the most about her. And boy is there a lot of introspection going on. In fact, when I opened up my computer to make notes as I read, the very first note I wrote was “A lot of introspection in the opening.” If you’re the type of reader who has a lust to absolutely be immersed in your protagonist from a self-examination standpoint, then you’ll love this story.

Quinnley certainly has a lot of things going for her. She never really gives up. Even through the end, when some horrific things happen to her, she remains determined. Quinnley is also selfless, despite the vast amount of in-her-own-head narrative that seems to take place. Even though her body is splitting from the inside out, she’s still willing to be the Crimson Mistress. But that’s about as far as she goes being an engaging character.

She’s not very smart. In fact, the how and why she comes to some of her genius conclusions is rather mind boggling. For instance, at the beginning, Michael calls her Clementine when they first meet. She reacts to the name, which means it was her likely alias at the time.

Given all the introspection, if she was really mistrusting of him, you figure some alarms would go off in her mind when he invites her to leave with him. Yet, she goes along with it. There’s even lines which say she “followed slowly, unsure she was making the right decision,” and “she sighed in relief at the sight of an unoccupied four door sedan.” Clearly, to this point, she was willing to go with Michael. He knew her alias. He knew her powers. He knew the dangers that would come. He even knew her origins. But then, when he calls her “Quinnley,” she suddenly figures everything out and bashes his head in. Um…ok.

There is a well-placed and obvious time jump. The story does this a lot, and it’s done well. There’s no confusion. The story picks up a year later. The narrative says she remembered an FBI list with some dude wanted for smuggling antiques he “claimed to have special powers.” The artifacts were from Australia, Mexico and Egypt. Quinnley’s artifact was from Egypt. Anyway, this guy evaded the authorities and Quinnley happened to remember the story.

How fortuitous, but what does that have to do with him calling her Quinnley? We never get an answer. Based off her internal narrative, she was VERY willing to go with him. He already knew so much about her. Her alias. Her powers. Her struggle. How was calling her Quinnley a giveaway?

I let that first one go. I figured we’d get some explanation for her gift of discernment, but it never comes. Instead, we’re treated to time after time of her doing questionable to lazy things and then suddenly having the answer. Maybe it’s a part of the powers gifted by the artifact?

The most interesting character, probably because he moves the plot, is Michael. This dude is the ying to Quinnley’s yang. We’re not given much about who he is or where his knowledge comes from, other than the ‘you’re going to die anyway Mr. Bond, I might as well reveal my plan’ monologue at the end.

Michael is always one step ahead of her. In fact, he even seems to have the ability to appear in her dreams. We’re not given a full answer. If this was just Quinnley’s way of thinking through events and coming to conclusions, or if indeed Michael is in her mind, isn’t clear. He shows up several times, gives her clues to where he is and how to escape the bad guys he’s hired. He’s literally giving her cheat codes to the game despite having hired all these super villains to kill her. How badass is that?

I loved that aspect. Quinnley seemed to be falling into Michael’s well crafted plan all along. In fact, from the start, he didn’t really seem like a bad guy. He genuinely knew something was wrong with her. She’s about to explode like a nuke killing millions, and he’s trying to save her and stop that. There’s no reason to think he’s bad, other than Quinnley telling us there’s something off. At least, that was the case until the ‘every bad guy’s a rapist’ moment at the end.

The third character is a homeless man named Moses. He’s old and helps Quinnley escape Michael’s thugs. I was really hoping, given the vague description of Michael’s powers, that this Moses would actually be Michael tricking Quinnley with some sort of perception-altering-power. It would make sense. Quinnley’s powers are from Egypt. She’s trying to escape them. Moses helped his people escape Egypt. It was all there.

There’s a scene where Moses helps her into a quasi bomb shelter. It would’ve been super freaking smart for Michael’s game plan, his whole reason for hiring goons yet helping Quinnley, was to drive her to this underground bunker where she’d meet him as Moses, explode, and he’d save millions of people. That didn’t happen, and we got what we got.

Action:

Billed as an “Avengers, Hancock and X-Men” type story, I was expecting loads of explosive, blown through a wall, stuff. I mean, this chick is the Crimson f-ing Mistress. She’s famous in her city. Her very powers are set to go supernova on her ass and all those around her! THE STAKES ARE HIGH!!!

Well, there’s a lot of running…

The book opens with her having already saved a family from a burning building. The house on fire was reflective of her past-life-since-abandoned. Then she bashes Michael’s head into a car. Crawls out several windows. Blends into crowds. There was one moment when a super buffed up baddy catches her. She plays it cool and cracks him in the face. He topples over after one punch. So…

The traditional Superhero tropes of blasting guys through buildings or using a shit ton of powers never really manifested. In fact, we’re never shown what exactly the Crimson Mistress can do. We get a lot of Quinnley introspection. But, from what I can best tell, the Crimson Mistress is probably immune to fire (never really seen), is maybe super-strong and has the power to leap to conclusions in a single bound.

I waffle back and forth as to whether or not she’s got super strength. On one hand, she took down Hans’ and Frans’ superior cousin with one punch. Yet, bashing Michael’s head into a car didn’t rupture his skull. In both scenes, she didn’t particularly display much control over her powers. She was drunk in one and splitting at the seams in the other. Maybe that crack on the face she gave beef-caked-baddy was just a well-placed smack?

This book is catering to the more realistic superhero crowd. If you’re looking for Stallone and Willis to show up, this isn’t for you. If you’re wanting self-examination and how to deal with being hunted without using powers, this will certainly entertain you.

Editing:

There were a few typos…maybe a handful. They mostly come in the form of omitted letters. You’ll have ‘though’ when it should be ‘thought.’ The flow isn’t interrupted.

I also like her use of tags. Very Hemingway. Instead of “I’ll kick your ass.” She kicked his butt. You’ll have “I’ll kick your ass,” she kicked his butt. This is a style I’ve seen a lot of people use, but get blasted for, especially if they’re an indie author, by other indie authors. I like this style, and I commend Andrews for using it. I find it amazing that we’re supposed to be a network of creative writers, doing things creatively, but you’ll mostly find indie authors tearing apart other indie authors for their style of writing because it doesn’t ‘conform to market standards.’ Like, what are market standards when the whole market is supposed to be creative and pushing boundaries to begin with? Does it only count if Hemingway or a Trad does it first? Anyway, I digress.

The format and style was consistent, flowing well. Three paragraphs were indented too far right when compared to the others. No biggie.

The only thing that stopped me was the over use of “she began to crawl,” “she started to climb,” “she began to think.” Instead of just saying ‘she insert-verb’ we usually get that little addition. Sometimes it was annoying and sometimes I didn’t notice it until I went back and counted.

Cover:

The font has a very late-40’s vibe. That’s probably why I kept reading it as a noir even though it really wasn’t. I mean, there’s excessive drinking, but really nothing that made it stand-out in that genre. The artwork is simple, classy and the colors work well. All in all, it’s actually a very appealing cover the more you look at it. I don’t get how the chair plays into the cover. I figured that had something to do with her therapist or what not sitting in a chair taking notes. But, as we’ve seen, that’s not the case in this story.

Conclusion:

The next story in the series is titled “Jack.” It’s following the theme of “Rehab for Superheroes.” If it continues with Michael as the main antagonist, then that would certainly affect my review of this part of the story. Since I’m looking at the series as a whole rather than just grading this as a one off because of its length.

It’s my hunch that “Crimson Mistress” isn’t so much Quinnley’s story as it is Michael’s introduction. Though, I certainly think the story could have used more of him in it if that were the case. If we were to grade it based on that mode, I would certainly continue with the story.

If it’s presented as having nothing to really do with Michael, I would still check out the next installment but ditch it quick if it didn’t meet my expectations, especially if Jack ends up being as stupid as Quinnley. Which, begs the question, is Michael really all that smart?

As I stated in the Moses section, there was a real opportunity where Michael could have been shown to be a genius. That never manifests. Instead, Quinnley takes the very long journey to confront Michael based off her dream, or his hint. We don’t get much of how she makes the leap to go to his “hideout,” and she even makes some rather absurd suggestions about Michael’s ego warranting an office, or to continue with her mission based off alarming evidence urging otherwise when she gets there.

However, we’re never given enough to show Quinnley knows anything about Michael to have any sort of opinion as to what he WOULD do. This isn’t Batman looking into the Joker and saying ‘yup, that’s an acid trap.’ What kind of puts a knife in my back is that her hunches about Michael, him being a pseudo rape-eyed creep with an ego for the corner office, all turns out to be true. From her observation, when he thinks no one is watching, he’s nothing more than an angry man spouting clichéd threats at his bumbling henchmen. ‘Bring me that girl!’

In the end, Quinnley is her own undoing, having successfully laid a trap for Michael, only to be undone by something stupid. So, how smart is Michael? The thing I liked best about the story, his intelligence, I was left questioning. His plan seemed to be nothing more than paying a bunch of guys to find the Crimson Mistress, and he prevails because Quinnley does herself in. Yeah…

All that said, the Crimson Mistress isn’t a total loss. It’s not great, but it certainly isn’t crap. There’s room for growth in the world Andrews has created. There’s hope that Jack and the other Superheroes can be more formidable opponents for Michael, which would certainly elevate his standing, which, for the most part of this installment, was pretty good.

The story successfully blends vague scientific theory with mythological lore, to the point where I want to know more about it. I had to wait until the end to find out, so it has me hooked to continue. While Quinnley herself was a major let down, and being a Superhero story I wanted those ‘Super’ moments, the concept still succeeded.

So, here’s to Jack. Let’s raise a glass and hope that his story expands on what came before it. Here’s to more Michael. May he and Jack have at it, because I really want them to.

Get “The Crimson Mistress” here.

You can find Ann Livi Andrews at her website.

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