As we grow, we learn about the world that surrounds us. The first independent exploration across the floor brings us a sense of the space around us, but strange phenomena like steps are beyond us. Then as our eyesight and cognitive functions improve, we appreciate vision in three dimensions. We grasp the idea of depth and “see” a context for the faces of mommy and daddy that have loomed above us in the cot. Our natural curiosity propels us to explore strange new worlds, seeking out new lives for ourselves, and boldly going where no baby has gone before.
This may seem a perverse way in which to begin the review of Small Town Heroes by Marion G Harmon, the fifth in the series, Wearing the Cape, featuring Astra and the junior team of Sentinels, but it nicely captures the spirit of the problem confronting all those who write a serial. When the first episode sees the light of day, the author waits with trepidation to see whether he or she’s managed to find the magic formula that will pay the bills while the next in the serial is written. In fact, this author has the talent to produce new books at a steady rate. He’s now a professional writer with a loyal following, keeping everyone happy. Well, keeping most people happy.
The problem may be put simply. The world of the superhero can be very two-dimensional. Each character comes with inbuilt strengths and weaknesses. In the right circumstances, any given character will prevail by using the strengths and shielding the weaknesses from attack. The plot in each book is therefore like a structured game or dance as opponents manoeuvre against each other to face combat in circumstances which favour one side. If the plot comes out right, the good guys have the edge over the bad guys, and we can pass on to the next thrilling instalment. Except, after a while this can grow a little repetitive. There are only a limited set of conditions in which each class of superhero can win or lose. After a few fights, we’ve seen most of these situations played out. So if the series is to develop, it must gain depth and context, i.e. the characterisation must show real growth, and there must be world-building so we understand how and why these particular superheroes and their antagonists came into being, and what motivates them to fight.
This book makes a more serious attempt not only to give some of the history explaining how this particular version of reality came into being, it also introduces a wider political context for the action, some of which takes place in Cuba. So, for the first time, we can begin to locate the American experience of superheroes in an international context. More interestingly, there’s also a discussion of the different types of political system that might emerge if some of the local citizenry develop superpowers. It’s all very well to assume some people would side with the forces of law and order, offering help to subdue superpowered villains as they break the law. But this ignores the need for a legal structure in which the powerful may be protected from civil liability. Imagine the problem if a gang of supervillains breaks into a bank. Superheroes surround the area and a fight ensues. Not surprisingly, a significant amount of damage is caused to buildings, the street furniture, and any vehicles in the area. And that’s before you get to any ordinary humans who get caught in the crossfire. So who pays to repair all the damage, replace broken fixtures and fittings, and cover the medical expenses of the humans injured? There must be careful liaison between conventional police officers and the superpowered helpers. Rules of engagement must be agreed. There must be penalties if the superpowered exceed their defined roles. There must also be investment in new forms of jail to hold those villains with different powers, and in the development of new weapons that can defeat the supervillains when none of the superheroes are around, or, perish the thought, if one of the superheroes goes rogue.
So one of the joys of reading books like this is to see an author making a real effort to develop the basic scenario. The opening books were auspicious because there’s real ingenuity in the way they exploit the information made available through time travel. However, as the series has progressed, the changes made using this information have produced an increasingly divergent reality which no longer matches the future from which the information was gleaned. So now the heroes are flying more by the seat of their pants, hoping their best decisions are good enough to keep their world on a safe track. Our primary hero, Astra, is also growing up. She’s still making mistakes as you would expect of someone of her age, but there are signs of maturity creeping in. Some time soon, she’s going to become a fine superhero leader. While she waits for more responsibility and some national recognition, the rest of her team rally round for the big set-piece fight at the end with others making guest appearances from earlier books. It’s pleasing to see how everyone gets their place in the action as a new set of supervillains poses different challenges to overcome. So having wobbled very slightly in the last book, Harmon is very much back on track with Small Town Heroes, leaving a mess of troubles for Astra to deal with when she gets back home in the next book.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.
Some believe the world should never change. They are comfortable with the now as it is, doubting that innovation can ever really be an improvement. The alternative possibilities are never directly considered. Indeed, the possibility of change is disconcerting to such people and to be avoided wherever possible. In political terms, conservatism is inherently popular, preserving the traditional, maintaining stability, and promoting continuity. Yet, in some areas of human activity, the pace of change is embraced. So technology marketing convinces us that yesterday’s 3.6 was nothing more than a stepping stone to the terrifying power of 4.0 which can all be ours for only a few pounds/dollars more. We’re encouraged to throw away the old, and queue like androids to acquire the next i-prefixed gismo.
Ignoring the local folklore creatures, the modern notion of the vampire stems from The Vampyre by John Polidori. Since 1819, therefore, we’ve essentially been recycling the same trope of beings that feed on blood drawn from living creatures. In most cases, they return from the dead and exhibit other supernatural abilities including transformation into a bat or a mist form. The best exponents can also psychologically dominate their potential victims. So, whenever you see the magic word “vampires” or suitable images on jacket artwork, you know what you’re getting. The only variables are in the language and the way in which the vampirism is described, changing the market focus from forms suitable for children, addressing the teen market, and then delivering different adult plots depending on whether the vampires are straight or gay, self-reflective parasites or predatory killers.
We now come to Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G Harmon. Because he likes to keep his audience on their toes, this is the third book in the Wearing the Cape series, except it’s really 1.5, fitting between events described in Wearing the Cape and Villains Inc. More importantly, it focuses on Jacky Bouchard aka Artemis, a relatively minor character in the first two books, and gives her a leading role in this intermediate book. Obviously, we’re still in The Post-Event World, i.e. individuals can react to life-threatening events by spontaneously developing breakthrough superpowers. This is relatively rare but, when it occurs, the individual’s new abilities or powers reflect something psychologically important to them. For our immediate purposes, it skews the usual vampire “parenting” trope. In most traditional stories, the existing bloodsucker will descend on the flock, gorge until sated, and then throw the dry husk away. This is the rational predator at work. If a biter uplifts a bitee every time it feeds, that’s a lot of competition emerging onto the meat market. Suddenly, the sheep grow alarmed by their losses and take defensive measures. Worse, the original vampire may have to fight newbies to establish and maintain territorial rights over the flock. Only in rare cases does a vampire intentionally create another. Well, courtesy of Marion G Harmon, we have a different route. If you’re a passionate vampirephile, you can breakthrough into superpowers except, instead of being faster than a speeding bullet, you’re sprouting fangs and suddenly terrified of eating a garlic sauce with your fettuccine.
This is no more disconcerting to society than developing the power to manipulate one of the elements or fly. Any power in the wrong hands can be a danger to those in the immediate area. So, in principle, you can have good and bad superpowered individuals, plus the opportunistic swingers. Our heroine is a good vampire who’s sent to New Orleans to help police the local vampires. State laws prevent them from feeding on humans under the age of eighteen, so age verification at the doors of pubs and clubs used by vampires has to be reliable. Fairly quickly, she realises there’s a more serious problem developing as a vampire may have broken through with the power to create other vampires. Alternatively, a new drug is enabling a small percentage of the users who die to be reborn as vampires. No matter which cause proves correct, the idea there may soon be a plague of vampires is something up with which society will not put. So Jacky, a local police officer with only a semi-controllable hairstyle, a member of the Catholic Inquisition, and a granny with a powerful mojo, take the side of righteousness and set out to save New Orleans, if not the world, from being overrun by an army of powerful predators.
The most pleasing aspect of this book is the rigorous way in which the author explores the new world. For example, who would have thought there could be such significant advantages to a vampire like Jacky when she goes breaking and entering. His analysis of the relative strengths of security systems including motion and heat sensors is great fun. Home security would need a whole new upgrade if vampires were real. The only minor problem is a slight straining of credibility in our heroine’s apparent lack of understanding of the relative strength and weakness of vampires. Speaking hypothetically, if I was suddenly to become a vampire, I would immediately begin a series of tests to discover exactly what my limits were. I would also seek expert advice from as many people as possible. After a few weeks, it would be very difficult to take me by surprise. While working with the Capes, Artemis has had many opportunities to talk with the leading experts in the field. Yet this book shows Jacky still relatively unprepared for taking on her own kind in New Orleans (although she does learn fast).
Bite Me: Big Easy Nights shows Marion G Harmon maturing as an author. This is an assured performance, nicely balancing interesting ideas against the need to propel the plot forward. More importantly, he’s also pushing the vampire trope into slightly less familiar territory. The blend of superhero and supernatural conventions is far more successful here than in the mass of urban fantasy novels which mix different types of being together and let them fight it out. You could read this as a standalone but, as is always the case in a series, it would be a richer experience if you’d read Wearing the Cape. So no more conservatism. Forget 1819. Rapidly accelerate past 1.0 and 2.0 and embrace the terrifying power of 1.5!
A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review and you can buy it on Amazon by clicking here.
It’s wonderful to be able to start off a review with high praise. We’ve got the woogyness down to three appearances and absolutely no nuggying at all! The thin lady has stopped singing in her YA voice and has left the junior theatre of war against the villains to join the grown-ups. Indeed, as befits the second book, Villains Inc (available from Amazon), Marion G Harmon has also completely left the nursery slopes and is now skiing on the main pistes like a seasoned veteran. Whereas there were distinct signs that Wearing the Cape was his first-published book, it’s equally distinct that Villains Inc is a more assured authorial performance. There are three clear signs of his graduation as a writer of quality. The first is the language. Although there’s an intentional element of irony in my opening praise, it’s also genuine in that the use of words like “woogy” no doubt reflects the way teen girls talk. Insofar as the first book is a coming-of-age story, you would expect the language of Hope Corrigan aka Astra to mature. She’s forced to be around adults and, more importantly, act as if she’s older than she is. Indirectly, the same applies to the young people who share the secret of her identity as a superhero: Megan, Annabeth and Julie joined, of course by Dane Dorweiler. They must all change as they start advancing through the higher education system. More generally, the prose is taut and economical. It powers the narrative as a real page-turner.
The second major sign is that all the characters are developing. Too often, an author comes up with a basic set of character sketches and then mechanically applies it to evolving situations. That way, if the series takes off, the fans get what they are expecting in the sequels. Except, if the same basic responses are made every time, even the most dedicated fans grow bored. Two or three books is the usual limit for holding strictly to the formula. There must then be development or the series will die. Here, from the off, Marion G Harmon has everyone adapting to the new situations. Hope’s parents are slowly accepting the need to be less protective and will live with the fact their daughter may come home bruised and somewhat battered. Her friends are literally prepared to rally round to help her change into costume. The rest of the team are not only starting to trust her physical strength, but also to recognise her growing intellectual assuredness. She’s now the liaison with the “human” police and supports the CSIs. Among the superheroes, she’s making significant contributions to the planning of sorties but can also take over strategic direction when the line of command fails.
The third sign is the logical way in which the plot is unwinding. As an example, let’s come to Shelley, the disembodied friend with access to future records. Except, as different choices are made in their immediate timeline, those records grow increasingly unreliable. At first sight, it appears a bit frustrating that our heroes are not making the choices to replicate the snapshot they have of the future. Just think how convenient it would be if, every time there was an unsolved crime, Shelley could just check her memory and read out the name of the culprit. Ah, the supposed benefits of determinism. Perfect certainty. . . just follow the behavioural pattern to produce the outcomes in Shelley’s records. But this would not be a benefit if the records show various cherished people dying. The heroes are forewarned yet are powerless to avert the deaths? Ah, the tragedy of implacable fate. How much better that we have causation without determinism, i.e. Shelley only has a record of one possible future. That means, as Michel Foucault and other postmodernists have pointed out, the silences and differences can speak just as loudly as the words.
It’s the way current reality diverges from the future record that can teach them the most. Once the team realises a sequence of events is not playing out as recorded, it can analyse the possible causes for the difference. Armed with this information, they can begin the process of establishing a new timeline in which adverse events are avoided. This is properly Aristotelian. It accepts that it’s impossible for an outcome to have a single necessary cause. There will always be always multiple interactive causes stretching back through time. Hence, there will be many opportunities for a beneficial intervention to change the possible outcome. In this, it’s good to see the range of the powers expanding away from the conventional super-strength, run-faster, fly-higher stereotypes to include what we might properly call supernatural abilities. The somewhat dishevelled Detective Don Fisher is a nice case in point in having unexpected virtues. The design and fabricating capacities of the appropriately named Vulcan also gives us a grounding in science fiction to balance out the more general fantasy nature of the cast of heroes and villains. His attempts to develop a cybernetic body and the AI software to animate it prove vital.
Finally a word about the pacing. We start off with a bang. Confronting and defeating a Godzilla is a high so, coming back to Earth, all we have to worry about is someone with the power to reduce a victim to a liquid and put it in a box — a small box! Now that’s really disconcerting. Thereafter, we’re slowly but surely building to the final confrontation with the villains. Villains Inc is very entertaining with some nice revelations at the end to set us up for what could be an interesting series! At this point, I note the third book to be published is called Bite Me: Big Easy Nights which is to fill in the gap between the first two books and tell us how Artemis spent her time in New Orleans. It’s an interesting creative decision to step back in time and I wait to see whether these events are presented as free-standing or will feed back into initial storyline set in Chicago.
Cover art by Viktoria Gavrilenko.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Words is funny things and to a Brit whose old bones have washed up on a foreign shore, it’s always interesting to find my vocabulary increasing. Since Wearing the Cape is a first-person narrative, I now know teen American girls use words like “woogy” and “nuggying”. OK so that’s an unfair early comment because it might suggest this book is YA and pitched at readers who nuggy each other every other Tuesday when there’s an “r” in the month. But, actually, it points to an interesting truth about the language used. It swings quite violently from thoughts appropriate to a bimbo to highly sophisticated thinking a sufficient number of grades above bimbo to qualify the thinker as a superhero. Indeed, one of the fascinations of reading this book is to watch the usages and grammar switch from simple and elegant, to complex and academic. Put another way, Marion G Harmon has had fun writing this. There’s some sly humour at work as Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials becomes Barlow’s Guide to Superhumans, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall becomes Charles Gibbons, The New Heroic Age. And, yes, some moments made me smile. Harmon is prepared to bushwhack the reader with a nice turn of phrase every now and then.
So this is a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage frame that’s rather dismantled as our young heroine suddenly “comes out” of her wrecked car as a superhero — staying straight, of course and not suddenly embracing homosexuality. Left at this level, it would have simply shown how she learns to control her powers and does good stuff for the benefit of humanity. But this adopts the strategy of Tim Kring’s TV series Heroes as there are multiple hero “types” including one with the ability to travel in time. Ah, time travel, that bear pit of lost ventures as mere mortals wrestle with paradox and learn all there is to know about predestination. So key events in this book are shaped by surveys of the future suggesting there are “dangers” to be avoided. No surprise there and, not unnaturally, our heroine is at the heart of the struggle to keep the world on the straight and narrow path, avoiding as much destruction to life as possible.
A part of the test of a good science fiction book is the willingness of the author to work through the logic of the situation, picking up the details and fitting them together into the jigsaw of the world he’s created. In this case, we have an unexplained worldwide “event”. Many die but one of the more hopeful consequences is that a few people develop superhuman powers. So some are literally quick off the mark and start using these powers for good, rescuing people from the wreckage, while others go out and rob the nearest bank. This immediately raises the question of what you do about the superpowered with criminal tendencies. The idea of an Elizabeth Arkham Asylum is good enough for human villains in other contexts, but superhuman villains. . . Well, they need to be taught a lesson and if that means a few must die, that’s all part of the deterrent function of policing.
This is the turning point in the novel and marks a change in tone that elevates all this from the routine as the author demonstrates an increasingly unsentimental view of the world he’s created. In so many contemporary novels, we must see everything pass through a period of uncertainty only for us to emerge into sunshine at the end. This seems to reflect a modern entertainment convention that focus groups must approve the work before release to the public. Should these groups disapprove, key scenes in the film or television show will be reshot, passages in the book will be rewritten. This is creativity by committee, everything conforming to whatever these randomly selected groups assert represents the majority’s sensibilities. Supposedly, this consultation process produces work likely to sell in numbers to the target niche rather than common denominator pap — your chance to express an opinion. Although I don’t think Harmon goes far enough towards the edginess that would make this a great novel, there’s some darkness in this tale of superheroes. He has the book going in the right direction.
So is Wearing the Cape great literature? Sadly, no. Does it have the most original plot of all time? Again, no. But it’s got a lot of heart, rearranging some fairly standard superhero tropes into new patterns that make it a genuinely entertaining read. Sure, it’s unpretentious but all the better for it. So, all in all, this is a very good value ebook, available in a Kindle edition for download to a reader like you. For the next books in the series, see:
Bite Me: Big Easy Nights
Small Town Heroes
A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review.