At the beginning of the year, Fr. Roderick Vonhögen of SQPN in his podcast “Geekpriest” recommended a new ebook he’d picked up on Amazon called “Wearing the Cape – The Beginning”. It was a free Kindle book that gave the reader the first 13 chapters gratis, enough to pull you into the story and spend a few bucks on the whole thing.
The premise is unique. At some point in the near future, an Event occurs that causes humanity to begin changing in apparently random occurrences called “breakthroughs”. When confronted with a life-threatening or similarly supercritical situation, someone who’s prone to breakthrough (and there’s no way to know ahead of time if they are) will suddenly begin exhibiting some type of superpower, usually related in some way to form that the situation took shape and to their own personality and experiences. In other words, if the person were caught in a fire, they could become someone who controls fire or someone who controls water, the antithesis of fire, or who can freeze things, the antithesis of heat. And these powers can take many forms, including those that are impossible under the laws of nature as we know them and thus people don’t just become Superman or the Flash, but can become magicians or witches or vampires of werewolves or even Tony Stark-ish inventors of impossible-to-duplicate technology.
The author, Marion G. Harmon, has spent quite a bit of time on his world-building–a quality I appreciate in authors of science fiction and fantasy–and so you see how breakthroughs vary by country of origin, by culture, or by outlook. Those raised on a steady diet of American comic books become superheroes, “capes” in the parlance of the books. Or they become supervillains. Or supersoldiers. In other countries they take on different forms and become warlords or spiritual masters.
What really draws me into these books is the self-awareness of these characters. The people of this world know that the breakthroughs have brought comic books and literature to life. Imagine if wizards à la Harry Potter could suddenly exist alongside Batman and James Bond superspies and immortal Highlanders. What would that do to those people? How would it change how they go about their lives? How would it affect how ordinary people live theirs? For one example, in the real world, a musclebound bruiser can rest assured that he’s usually more powerful than some rail-thin pipsqueak. But in the world of the “capes”, that pipsqueak could have superstrength hidden inside.
And so these breakthroughs cause all kinds of changes in the world. Law enforcement and the justice system has to figure out how to deal with criminals caught by what amount to non-police citizens. Every country suddenly bulked up with super-powered soldiers now has the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction at their disposal. Even the Church would have to figure out the theological implications and in fact, Harmon hints at some impressive knowledge of how the Church works as he writes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gets involved in many cases and that the pope wrote an encyclical on the breakthrough phenomenon. (I wish I could read that!)
Harmon may not go into as much obsessive detail in his world-building as S.M. Stirling does, but it’s still very impressive. There’s so much detail, in fact, so many breakthroughs, that I wish there were an illustrated guidebook to keep them all straight as I read the stories.
As for the stories themselves, they mostly focus on one young woman, Hope, who experiences a breakthrough just as she’s about to head off for college. (See the parallelism there?) We follow along with her as she figures out to reconcile her new powers with her now jeopardized plans for her life. Will she become a “cape”, someone who makes it their profession to be a crimefighting superhero? Will she keep a secret identity or be like others who live their life in the public eye, a new kind of celebrity for the media to gawk at and exploit.
I’m not a young woman and never was one so I can’t say for certain whether Harmon does a good job of characterization. I like Hope and she’s at least as substantial as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. I will say that Harmon is a bit better writer of action than he is of the relationships in Hope’s life, especially those of her small social circle of girlfriends, who come off feeling a bit vague.
I mentioned that the second book in the series is called “Bite Me: Big Easy Nights”. While the other books focus on Hope as our protagonist, this book focuses instead on Jackie, who starts as a secondary character in “Wearing the Cape”. She’s a young woman whose breakthrough turned her into a vampire. Another interesting element of the breakthrough phenomenon is that not only are the superpowers gained based on the individual’s own experiences and personality, they also experience the limitations they would envision as well. Thus a “Superman”-like superhero would have a kryptonite that could harm him. And anyone who becomes a vampire is subject to the restrictions they believe vampires would live under: being harmed by sunlight, aversion to garlic. For those who watched a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they would be restricted from being able enter a space without being invited. But since Jacky wasn’t your typical vampire breakthrough, i.e. not someone who fantasized about it or read a lot of Anne Rice, she wasn’t bound by many of the usual restrictions.
Where “Wearing the Cape” feels like an exploration of the superhero comic come to life, “Bite Me” feels likes an exploration of monster movies come to life. Jackie encounters Anne Rice-style vampires, Buffy-style vamps, werewolves, redneck monster hunters, and even voodoo practitioners. She also encounters a priest, one of a couple of Catholic priests who play important supporting roles in the story, yet more examples of the Catholic faith showing up.
In fact, I would say the books show the imagination of a man with Christian sensibilities. The books contain no salaciousness, no gratuity of sex. The main characters act downright chaste so far.
One final point: the books were apparently self-published as e-books. That’s not intended as knock on them or an apology for inferior work. These books are as good as and better than many books I’ve purchased from mainstream publishers. They’re an example that the era of independent self-published authors is at hand. It also shows that good marketing techniques work. If Harmon hadn’t offered the first 13 chapters as a free ebook teaser, I’d never have discovered the series. And as a self-publishing author, Harmon is also close to his fans, as one can see from his own website called appropriately enough WearingtheCape.com.
My bottom line is that this is a fun series of books with a thought-provoking premise, enjoyable plots, likable characters, and world I’ve like to visit. I would also say that these books are as good as any of those by J.K. Rowling and deserve a wider audience. Happily it appears future installments in the Capeverse are on the way.
- One note about “Bite Me”: At one point Harmon introduces a ghost whose presence seems tangential to the story, yet the protagonist makes plans to come back and investigate further. Yet she never does! It doesn’t affect the overall story, but it’s a bit maddening. As Anton Chekhov said, if you introduce a gun in the first act, then in the second act it should be fired. I wish he’d fired the pistol and paid off on that narrative bit or just left it out. ↩
- 51RP0THCv0L._SL250_: Marion G. Harmon/Amazon