“Even in the beginning Atlas never went for the briefs-outside-the-tights look, but there are plenty who did and I started with the spandex shorts and cape. What possesses a person, already a freak to begin with, to put on a cape and mask and let people give her a funny name? All right, I will grant that there are good reasons for the mask. And the codename. But the rest? What are we, ten?”
Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon is a fine read for Young Adult and Teen readers and also has a lot to offer more mature readers who are fans of the comic book superhero universe.
The universe of Wearing The Cape is set up elegantly with a quick explanation that a mysterious “Event” occurred which caused an original set of individuals to “breakthrough” and become superhumans. As time passes, others continue to join their ranks with breakthroughs in moments of severe personal stress. Readers of George RR Martin’s Wild Card series will note the similarities between the universes. Wearing the Cape also resides within a realistic modern day setting, and its Super Heroes were once ordinary folk like you and me.
When 19 year old Hope Corrigan is buried beneath tons of rubble after a freeway bombing by the arch villain known as the Teatime Anarchist, a breakthrough turns her into a Supergirl style superhuman (described as an “Atlas type” in the Cape universe). She gains super strength, the ability to fly, and powers of rapid self-healing. She digs her way out from beneath the mess and goes to work trying to save other victims of the bombing who were not as fortunate.
The book follows Hope as she learns about her new powers and makes the difficult choice to give up college, friends, and her social life to become “Astra”, the newest member of the Chicago Sentinels, her town’s local superhero team. Hope/Astra’s experiences have a rich sense of attachment to current culture. She learns about the PR needs of superheroes, who are not only political and military entities but the biggest celebrities of their day. In addition to the right name, the right costume is critically important (Astra’s is padded with a little extra lift up top to give her that older, more rounded, super-heroine look.)
In the world of Cape, violence is not sanitized or glamorized. Superhumans can choose to become superheroes, supervillians, or do their best to keep their powers hidden and try to live ordinary lives. Superhumans gain powers but no greater intelligence, morality, or insight than they had when they were not super. As a result, some of them have the oh-so-human tendency to wander back and forth between the opposing poles and muck it all up a bit.
Despite a sometimes humorous tone and lighter moments, Wearing The Cape is basically a dark book. Throughout the narrative, there is a strong sense of loss. People die. This is a real world in which no one is safe when the violence starts.
I liked a lot of things about this story – the main and supporting characters are nicely fleshed out, there is plenty of action to keep the story going, and there was a lot more going on than the simple black and white morality of the comic books I read as a kid. Plus, Astra kicks butt!
One of the major strengths of the book is its complex and interesting primary villain, the Teatime Anarchist. He began as a harmless prankster but grew into a dangerous terrorist who now presents a serious threat to the country. His connection to Hope/Astra drives the storyline through a series of interesting plot twists and surprises.
Overall, Wearing the Cape is entertaining, skillfully plotted, and well-written. This is not to say it is a perfect novel – I have a few criticisms, but they do not detract from my thumbs-up on this one.
The primary element of the story that didn’t work for me was Hope/Astra’s relationship with her mentor, John/Atlas. Although we know early on that Hope had a crush on him when she was a young teenager, they do not engage in flirtation or any other obvious display of affection (other than Atlas looking out for her like a kid sister) until suddenly they are in love. This is the biggest problem I have with a lot of YA fiction – insta-love relationships that spring from nowhere. Basically, I just didn’t feel it.
Another aspect of the book where my attention began to wander was during the time spent with the cutesily-named “Bees”, the shallow popular girls who are Hope’s lifelong friends. I was also put off by her mother’s big charity foundation events (I have never been especially interested in the doings of the well-to-do). I found myself deciding Hope was superficial, and I was not able to empathize with her as much as I need to with a first person narrator. I had trouble caring when she agonized over leaving it all behind to join the Sentinels.
Additionally, Hope was also just a little too much of a goody two-shoes. Seriously, no teenage rebellious streak at all? Fortunately, I found I could readily empathize with Hope’s new friend, Artemis, whom Hope meets after she becomes Astra. Artemis comes from a darker place (after all, she’s dead before the book begins), and my interest in knowing where that storyline was going helped me to remain engaged during the book’s weaker moments. Artemis is an interesting mixture of superhero and supernatural. As an unaffiliated vampire vigilante, she is only one of the interesting permutations of what it means to be superhuman in the Cape universe.
The novel is written in first person from Hope’s point of view throughout, but the first person account is offset at the beginning of each chapter with quotes from various sources such as Barlow’s Guide To Superhumans, the Chicago Sentinels Training Manual, newspaper accounts, and Astra’s own book, Notes From A Life. This is an astute style choice by the author which serves two purposes: it gives a feel to the book of being set in an historical context, and it allows the reader to step outside the unavoidably teenage outlook of the narrator for a slightly different perspective on the story from time to time.
Do I recommend this book? Yes, but with the caveat that at $7.99, I think it’s overpriced. It does not hit my sweet spot of $2.99 to $5.99 for eBooks. For this reason, I won’t be buying the follow up books in the series (despite being sorely tempted by the one in which Artemis figures as the main character), but I would borrow them from the Kindle Lending Library.
Taken as a whole, Wearing The Cape is a nicely written piece of pop-fiction that hits all the right notes for a YA and Teen audience. It contains mild language and sexual references, but there is nothing in the book that a typical junior high schooler hasn’t already been exposed to. Hope/Astra is also a remarkably good role model who is thoughtful, quietly Catholic, and is not sexually active despite becoming involved in an adult romantic relationship in the course of the book. Adults can also enjoy this book but should be aware that there will sometimes be elements that make it feel like a book for younger readers.