It’s possible anyone who’s met me for more than, say, a few hours will hear me wax poetic about the X-Men of my youth. When I was a kid, they were a much needed allegory to my own existence. Think about it: the mutants were people born different, but to normal families, and hated and feared for their difference by the world around them.
This isn’t hard to translate for a queer kid, especially one who knows things weren’t going to go well if anyone found out.
The difference, of course, is that the X-Men also had fantastic powers, which they used to try and prove to the world they weren’t a threat, and smacked down villainy wherever they found it—especially among their own kind.
So, years later, when here and there the various comic books did finally deliver a few queer characters, I was so on board. Finally, there wasn’t just an allegory, there were actual queer superheroes for me to enjoy.
Well, now and then.
Okay, maybe, like, two or three?
Sometimes, they even lived.
Yeah, mostly it was a frustrating wait with very little payoff. When I found Hero, by Perry Moore, I was over the moon. A superhero story with a main, queer, protagonist? Yes. Sign me up. From there? Steven Bereznai’s Queeroes was waiting for me.
Both were like reading back-in-time, where my young queer self could enjoy young adults who were not just queer, but powerful in a literal sense. I loved it.
Sacred Band does on a grand scale what books like Hero and Queeroes began. For one thing, the characters are older, and the ensemble cast lives in a world affected by superpowers, rather than more singular, smaller groups or locations. The sense of the contemporary world—with all it’s ugly politics—is much more centre-stage, and it brings with it conflicts unique to Sacred Band that I quite enjoyed: when the heroes attempt to find some missing gay men in the Ukraine, it becomes an international incident between varying government agencies involved in the tracking and policing of individuals with powers.
That sense of “big picture” comes pretty early on in the book, as the reader is nudged from place to place through the eyes of a few characters. At first, I found myself making a couple of notes to myself for the purpose of this review. The difference between, for example, an Original vs. an Echo vs. an Empowered (all of whom have powers) was a lot of information thrust into the hands of the reader to begin with, and if I do have one criticism—and it’s a very light one and by no means derailed my enjoyment of this book—it was that it could have been left for later. By the time you meet an Empowered and an Original, you’ve already been with two Echoes, and the story has naturally explained them. That first initial info dump wasn’t needed, and served only to make me wonder if I’d need to keep track right away, which wasn’t the case.
Beyond that, however? Everything about Sacred Band was a wonderful ride. There are so many parallels to the silver and bronze ages of comics that I found myself smiling on more than one occasion. The golden era of the Originals is gone, and the heroes that have come since have seen that first wave of powerful heroes falter in different ways, leaving the American youth of today in the position of having to ally with an organization that seems more intent on keeping them from being particularly special—or at the very least, controlled and useful.
The three voices that carry you through most of the tale are distinct and enjoyable. Gauss, a young architecture student with a gift of magnetism and a past with more than a few judgement call mistakes, is a great lens through which to learn about most of the world. He’s young enough to know what freedoms he has (and doesn’t quite have) in the US, and seeing atrocities go unpunished in the Ukraine would likely have him upset enough even without it involving an internet friend.
Then there’s Deosil, a trans woman with an almost pagan gift with the natural elements, who speaks at pagan retreats and considers her gifts something akin to magic, who is far more street-smart and aware than Gauss, and a good friend of his who knows far more of his motivations than he himself seems to be aware. She and Gauss are of an age, and have similar status as individuals who were just average folk before they were accidentally given abilities by the random echoing event that forms superpowered beings around the world. I really enjoyed her character, and in as much as I can be a judge, I think her representation was solid.
The third main voice of the book was Sentinel, one of the Originals who was the first couple of dozen people to gain powers in the original event that ever spawned abilities. Formerly closeted back in the day, he’s in his sixties (but through having Originals power, he ages very slowly, has a perfect bod, and is basically a wall of attractiveness and muscle). Super-strong through the use of a kind of short-range Telekinesis, he can fly, and previous to the events in the book had all but removed himself from society after the very public response to the death of his fellow Superhero partner, which also outed him to the world and ended the first (and only) team-up of superheroes to this day.
Brought out of retirement by Gauss, Sentinel has to face his own past, as well as coming to grips with many of the realities he’s chosen to simply avoid.
And when one of those realities involves a group of super-powered beings who seem perfectly content to “vanish” young queer kids in the Ukraine?
That’s where things take off.
In case I haven’t made it clear: I completely enjoyed Sacred Band. The level of queer on the page was on par with the superheroics, the powers at play were intriguing, and the world-stage upon which everything was set just added to the high stakes. It was gritty enough to make me worry for the characters, and a tangled enough knot of a mystery at its core to make me enjoy watching the heroes unravel the mess.
Frankly, I’d love to read Sacred Band again, in graphic novel form.
Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine
© 2017, ‘Nathan Burgoine