Young Sentinels by Marion G Harmon
I confess to liking the books in the Wearing the Cape series, the latest of which is called Young Sentinels by Marion G Harmon. When we started out, the world was a simple place for Hope Corrigan, now Astra. Then came her breakthrough and she’s pitched into the middle of an evolving situation (pun on evolution intended). The world is going to become a very different place through a blend of science fiction and fantasy in a superhero context. As always, change is a double-edged sword. For some it will work out well. In this instance, outcomes depend on temperament. An altruistic individual given superpowers will probably use those powers to protect and serve the community of ordinary humans. Individuals with criminal tendencies are gifted new ways in which they can unilaterally shape the world into something appealing to their sensibilities as “superior” beings. This potentially involves quite large scale damage and destruction and, as in the last book, we start off this episode with a big set-piece attack on Chicago’s infrastructure. This is a classic blackmail/extortion manoeuvre. “This is a small sample of what I can do.” Pause for evil laughter. “Obey or feel my wrath. I want a green Earth and one million dollars.” You know the melodramatic style of supervillains in the making.
At this point, I need to pause for a moment of reflection. Recently, I was talking to an author who’s made a living for himself writing the books he wants to write. Instead of limiting himself by picking a target audience of readers and then trying to guess what kind of books they would like to read. He’s produced book after book, prepared to wait for readers to find him and like his work for what it is. Not everyone can afford to do this, of course. But, in a perfect world, writers would produce the best books possible and not pull their punches. As in the last book which began with the arrival of a Godzilla, the opening set-piece in this novel is problematic. Yes, it’s good to see the superheroes rallying round to rescue people and save as much of the infrastructure as possible. And with first-person points of view, we readers can be at the sharp end of the fight. It’s very exciting. But it’s also inherently limited.
The superheroes are rescuing people who are being injured and will probably die unless they are saved. But the terror, pain and suffering of the rescuees is glossed over. The result is very one-dimensional. The forms of the different attacks are great ideas. . . In this book, an omniscient author could have been with the joggers on the park paths as the first signs show. Their uncertainty makes them pause. Then the reality of the danger registers. Some will blindly flee. Others will try to think where their safest route might lie. All will be trapped, praying for help to come. None of this is even referred to. The problem for the author is the readership. If he’s becoming dependent on younger readers who enjoy positive outcomes for their new heroes, none of the dark terror content fits. It’s the same with the politics. This is boring to the young but fascinating to those of a more mature outlook. Since we’re focused on Chicago, here’s a city at the epicentre of an escalating conflict. Because the best and strongest of the superheroes have their base in the city, it’s become a target for supervillains with a point to prove. How many ordinary humans have to die? How do the hospitals cope with the influx of wounded from each new assault? Just how many times must the city rebuild sections so casually demolished? Do we assume that, as with flooding, the private insurance industry refused cover for all breakthrough-related damage after the consequences of the Event became apparent, forcing the creation of a national program, financed by the federal government? Why is this city not like real-world Detroit with a shrinking population, insufficient tax revenue to pay the emergency services personnel to risk their lives putting out fires or rushing to the scenes of accidents, and so on?
Let’s be blunt about this. The supervillains we’ve seen are the equivalent of home-grown terrorists. When America was attacked on 9/11, it was traumatised. Why is there no equivalent emotional response to this unremitting stream of attacks on American soil? This fictional Chicago should either have expelled the superheroes or all but a stubborn group of hold-outs should have left the city deserted. As it is, the context for the action has not grown as it should from one book to the next. It’s actually ironic. The author has produced a situation in which the people yet to breakthrough have to remain at risk because our heroes need people to protect and rescue. Indeed, one logical possibility would have been the abandonment of cities in all areas where the breakthrough phenomenon has produced significant numbers of adversaries. This will leave unoccupied war zones for the “good” and “bad” to fight it out. The surviving population can be distributed across the countryside in small communities, sheltering until the “good” win a permanent victory, the victorious “bad” arrive to enslave them in perpetuity, or the survivors breakthrough and can defend themselves.
I’m not saying this failure makes Young Sentinels a bad book. Indeed, as it develops, we have gestures at a political context. Shankman is up front, with the Goons and the Humanity First groups making their presence felt. The family situation for Malcolm Scott/Megaton, albeit transitorily explored, does encapsulate the broader debate. Eventually, some citizens do pretend to participate in an exodus from Chicago by spending time with relatives elsewhere and, for those who remain, there are “evacuation” procedures. But to my mind, this is inadequate and represents a looming problem that should be addressed if the series is not to fall into young adult territory on a permanent basis and therefore lose much of its interest for older readers.
Back to the book as is, there are some really nice touches like the status of Shelley and the practical mechanics underlying the upward and downward mobility in superhuman abilities. There’s the underlying divergence between the records of the future and actual events on the ground, while the question of privacy as applied to superhero identity gets a good workout. Structurally, I think there are too many points of view. On one or two occasions, I had to pause and check whose POV was operating. The voices are not sufficiently distinctive. Nevertheless I find the trio of conscripts rather pleasing with Ozma winning the prize for the most innovative superhero I’ve encountered in the last decade. The climax is beautifully put together and builds tension expertly except it does depend on a coincidence which now creates a forward link to the next book which I look forward to because it gives the relevant person another chance for darkness: the desired murder for revenge is only postponed. Finally, it’s good to see the Teatime Anarchist is still relevant (albeit in name only).
Taken overall, there’s an emotional heart to Young Sentinels which just manages to stay above YA level and eventually makes the book satisfying on its merits. That’s despite the ending where we have results with no obvious price paid. Although it’s not completely unsatisfying, it fits too much into the YA model where protagonists are seen to get what they want too easily: it’s escapist wish-fulfillment. More generally, Astra has proved her emerging leadership qualities. Fortunately she does make mistakes. Although she’s not entirely destined to be this society’s Ender Wiggins, some moderation of the sweetness and light would be beneficial. More doubt and guilt would help her grow into a more credible person. So with some frustrations evident, I recommend this as part of the continuing Wearing the Cape series.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.