Review: ‘The Masked Songbird’ by Emmie Mears

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Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonising her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally—and most mysteriously—she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Superpowers don’t make a superhero. Real strength isn’t something you’re born with — it’s something you build.

Emmie Mears is my favourite new urban fantasy discovery for 2016. I devoured her Ayala Storme series and then went looking for more. The Masked Songbird was her debut, but didn’t suffer for it — it has all the hallmarks of her writing, in that it’s action-packed and full of heart.

Despite the blurb, Gwen starts off in a pretty dark place. Yes, she has a boyfriend — but Angus is a manipulative prick one step away from being abusive. Yes, she has a job — but her terrifying boss is clearly a corporate psychopath (and, it turns out, a regular psychopath too) who has it out for her. Gwen’s life is very grey and grim.

That all changes when, in typical superhero-origin style, Gwen ingests an experimental serum hidden in a bottle of soft drink. But not in a “wow, I have powers; I rock now” way. More in a “what the hell is happening” way. She pays a pretty steep price for her powers (I won’t go into details, because spoilers), and gets her ass handed to her at least once because she gets in over her head. Strength does not automatically equal skill, after all.

And, even with her superpowers, it takes Gwen a while to realise she deserves better than what she has, especially with regards to Angus. She suffers from that sadly fairly common delusion that being with a scumbag is better than being single. (Hint: it’s not!) I’m pleased to say that she grows throughout the story and comes to realise she doesn’t need him.

I haven’t read very many true superhero books, though a lot of urban fantasy has the trappings of a superhero story. The Masked Songbird is pure superhero, down to the spandex costume and the crime-fighting. I loved it so much!

I loved watching Gwen’s friendship with her flatmate Magda turn from “friendly acquaintances” into “BFFs”. And Taog (pronounced “took”, apparently — Welsh names do my head in), the kindly and hot next door neighbour, is patient and committed to his beliefs. There is definite tension there, but Gwen resists it, not wanting to cheat on Angus. Hopefully their relationship will develop further in the sequel.

The overarching events that provide the backdrop and the external story relate to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 (when The Masked Songbird was originally released). The book is set in the lead-up to the vote, and explores the idea of an extremist pro-UK group, Britannia, trying to suppress the “leave” campaign while scaring the public into voting to stay. I did struggle with how truly evil the Britannia members were at times … but I suppose every superhero needs an evil super-villain. (And there’s no doubt that people have gotten violent over this sort of thing in the past … though not usually without religion being a factor too.)

Oh, I should add: the other thing I really enjoyed on a personal level was the evocative descriptions of Edinburgh. I went there on holiday in 2012 and it was so easy for me to picture the places I’d visited.

I’ve already bought the sequel and can’t wait to get stuck into it. I highly recommend this one.

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Because I read this on my Kindle, I printed out the cover to take a photo with. I didn’t realise until afterwards that it was a different cover. Aargh!

Four-and-a-half stars

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