Val Hall: The Odd Years by Alma Alexander
Val Hall: The Odd Years, by Alma Alexander, is the second collection of linked stories set in what is basically a retirement home for superheroes (or possibly villains as one story asks). Particularly “Third-class superheroes”, those who have a singular, lesser power that might only have been used once or a handful of times. As with just about every collection, the stories vary in effectiveness/impact, but overall, as with Val Hall: The Even Years, it’s an enjoyable and often moving read.
Each story focuses on a single hero as they relate their tale to Eddie, one of the staff members (he tells his own story in the final tale). Due to this structure, the stories tend to be brief, are a bit “talky”, at times can be expository heavy, and can also be a bit blunt in theme or aim. While mileage will vary as to how much all that affects one’s reading experience, I found they were never deal-breakers and only once or twice somewhat detracted from my enjoyment. On the other hand, Alexander does a nice job throughout of conveying moving moments in these characters’ lives (also often tied to major historical events), not just in the big obvious “tragic” moments but in quieter, softer ways. And she also writes some simply lovely bits of description. For those reasons, and for the interesting historical background, I’d recommend both books, and while you needn’t read them straight through, I’d say read both relatively quickly and back-to-back for the full cumulative impact. More specifically for these stories:
- “The One About Her Voice”: a time travel story involving 108-year-old Beatrice Bell, who despite her age wants to attend the Women’s March in Seattle. This is one of the more blunt stories, and is a bit predictable, but has a touching close.
- “The One About the Dust Dragon”: Here we learn about Mary Miller, aka “The Shield”: when and why she first used her power and how it affected the rest of her life. Some great descriptions in her of the natural elements.
- “The One About the Last Prayer” This was one of the few times the bluntness detracted from my pleasure, though the story is solid enough.
- “The One About Radiant Shadows” This, about a superhero born out of the atomic bombs being dropped on Japan, was one of my favorites, with a compelling central character, a dark story at its core, and some vivid (and disturbing at times) description.
- “The One About Truth in Beauty” Some great descriptive moments set at the evacuation of Saigon, though the hero and the power at the center of the story didn’t do much for me.
- “The One About Just Another End of the World” About the Y2K event, my least favorite story in the collection. Not bad, but I just didn’t find the plot or the character particularly compelling.
- “Coda: The One About Passing the Torch” A satisfying final story that nicely fills in some details about the history of Val Hall and about Eddie and brings the whole duology to a nice neat (in a good way) close.
Following the last story, there’s also a bonus story from the first book and a very interesting appendix that gives us even more details about the Hall, about the difference between superhero classes, and more.