The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Super Heroes: Wearing the Cape

Wearing the Cape by Marion Harmon

Wearing the Cape #1 by Marion Harmon

The first time I read this novel I had gotten a free copy of what turned out to be only the first few chapters of the book. I read a lot of free novels and unfortunately most of them do not leave me wanting to go out and find another of the author’s works. Wearing the Cape was different. The minute I finished it I got online and bought the full novel and then I just kept reading Harmon’s series until I finished all of them.

I like super hero stories. I’ve been reading them since my mother gave me my first comic books the summer before I entered fourth grade. Before that I’d watched the original Spiderman cartoon and the Super Friends on television. Many thousands of comics, a whole bunch of movies and television shows, and maybe two-to-three hundred super hero novels later I feel like I’m an expert on the genre. So it isn’t lightly that I say that Harmon’s Wearing the Cape is easily one of the three or four best superhero series out there.

It’s a series for people who take their supers seriously. Like all the other superhero novels out there, Wearing the Cape still demands a certain level of suspended disbelief, but there is a gritty realism in the way this world is envisioned that goes well beyond standard super hero fare—especially that coming out of the genre leaders at Marvel and DC comics. Yet all of that gritty realism doesn’t get in the way of genuine super heroics and the fun that comes from reading about them.

Hope Corrigan is an eighteen year old woman about to start her first year in college when a terrorist bomber drops an overpass on her and a bunch of other people driving on the highway. By a fluke of luck, she’s not immediately killed by the falling concrete, but she’s worried about all the other people around her and her need to help them generates a superhero breakthrough in her that launches her into her career as a superhero called Astra.

Chicago, where the series is based, is home to America’s premier superhero team, The Sentinels, and to Atlas, the world’s first superhero. They have a lot of experience training new supers and the Sentinels, like all super teams, has a legal status working with the local authorities to A) help them control supervillains and B) work as emergency response personnel during natural and man-made disasters. (You know, like a terrorist dropping an overpass onto the highway below.)

Astra’s training gives us the opportunity to painlessly discover how the superheroes function in society. No, that’s not fair, it’s not just painless it’s downright exciting. Superheroes are celebrities with fans, magazines, and clubs devoted to them. There are also movies, television shows and merchandising. They need insurance to cover the civil suits that happen when they’re called in to take down supervillains. There are government agencies that work with them and keep an eye on them. And all of this truly critical world building seamlessly flows from the text while Hope/Astra deals with the completely believable stresses of an incredibly difficult job. And that’s just the day to day problems of a superhero—the equivalent of Spiderman stopping a bank robbery on his way to the Daily Bugle. The actual mega-villain activity is worthy of the best story arcs Marvel and DC have ever put on paper.

To close I’d like to say a few words about the audio version of this novel which I just had the pleasure of listening to. I’ve read the kindle version two or three times, but the audio brings a whole new level of enjoyment to the story. You see, even though you know Hope’s just eighteen, you can forget that at times while reading, but not with a capable narrator like K. F. Lim. She gets the young Hope’s voice perfectly and the giggles and tongue-tied stutters and a dozen other little narrative effects really drive home that this is a teenager we’re reading about. It brings Harmon’s story to life even more effectively than he did.

Wearing the Cape 1.5 Bite Me by Marion G. Harmon

Bite Me is a spinoff novel from Harmon’s Wearing the Cape series. It follows the exploits of Jacky Bouchard, aka Artemis, as she travels to New Orleans to help police identify vampires preying on underaged people while simultaneously giving some credibility to her new identity. Jacky is the victim of a supervillain who transformed into a vampire after the Event. He was one of the very rare vampire transformations that was powerful enough to make his own vampire progeny. Jacky was the result—victim of a really bad stalker. This is important background information because almost all of the other vampires in New Orleans became vampires like other people become superheroes and supervillains—as a result of their strong desires and a crisis situation. Jacky doesn’t like playing Goth girl and Anne Rice afficionado. What she enjoys is being a covert intelligence specialist, and she learns in the course of this novel that she has a lot more to learn about her chosen profession.

One of the things I like best about Harmon novels is his ability to create credible superhuman “cultures” for want of a better word. In most of the U.S. breakthroughs follow the superhero template. In other places, like Japan, other cultural phenomenon influence the transformations. In New Orleans, there is a strong tendency for a supernatural flair to influence the breakthroughs—vampires, witches, werewolves, voodoo queens, etc. It gives the city a flavor very different than the Chicago Harmon has introduced in his other books.

The plot of Bite Me very quickly becomes complicated by the introduction of the possibility that someone has the ability to create new vampires. If this is like Jacky’s stalker, it is conceivably the beginning of an apocalyptic event as vampires sire vampires who can sire more vampires, spreading across the country and eventually the world. So, the stakes are high as Jacky investigates. The action is also quite strong, but again, different in tone from what we see in the Wearing the Cape novels. If you are interested in seeing what vampires would be like in a superhero universe, this is the book for you.

Wearing the Cape 2 Villains Inc

Villains Inc picks up a few months after Wearing the Cape ends. Astra is in a bad way becoming a source of tabloid headlines over a few missteps she has made between books. None of these are particularly bad things from the reader’s perspective but it’s easy to imagine the tabloids twisting facts to sell some papers. Add to that that Astra is still dealing with having lost Atlas, the love of her life, to the Ring attack at Whittier Base.

Then Godzilla strikes—or at least a Godzilla—and we are immediately reminded why Harmon is so good with his superhero worldbuilding. A green terrorist is trying to save the environment by planting Godzilla eggs in major water sources near big cities. New York and Tokyo have already been hit, now it’s Chicago’s turn and boy is it exciting—even though it’s just a teaser to introduce the new book.

The real plot revolves around a mysterious shape-changing thief and the super villains trying to kill him (or her). The Sentinels discover that Villains Inc (a supervillain enforcer group) has been resurrected by the Chicago mob and now the mob is in a civil war as members of Villains Inc try to take over. Chicago’s Sentinels are trapped in the middle and the population is furious that they can’t stop the villains from fighting. There is plenty of excellent action and a couple of great new supers added to the mix and once again Astra is forced to grow. This is an excellent story all around.

I listened to the book in audio this time and was disappointed by the change in narrators. Perhaps I would feel differently if Caitlin Kelly had read both of the books, but K. F. Lim’s reading of Wearing the Cape was a hard act to follow that I was halfway through Villiain’s Inc before I started to warm to Kellyl’s characterizations. It’s not that she’s not a competent reader, but it’s almost always a bad decision to switch narrators midstream. Lim had brought these characters to life for us and now we had to get acquainted with them all over again. It was as if we had slipped over into a parallel universe and as a result all the characters were just slightly off from what we were expecting.   

Wearing the Cape 3: Young Sentinels by Marion Harmon

One of the many things Marion Harmon does very well is develop ultra-powerful super villain threats. This time the book opens with the Green Man—a super-powered eco-terrorist with the ability to make plant life grow and spread at remarkable speed. So new trees essentially “charge” across the parks, break up roads, grab and kill anyone in their paths, wreck property, overturn cars and basically try and turn Chicago into a forest. Stopping the growth across a front more than a mile wide and rescuing all the people involved would tax the abilities of the Justice League or the Avengers and it’s a great challenge for Harmon’s Sentinels. But it’s not the only difficulty they face in this story.

The Wreckers, a new group of super villains, has come to Chicago where they are targeting for execution known members of the Paladins—an anti-supers extremist group. The Wreckers powers are top-notch and dangerous and they’re not afraid of causing a lot of collateral damage in their attacks. To make matters worse, their appears to be a connection between the Wreckers and the mysterious mass murderer called the Ascendant, further complicating the Sentinels’ problems.

While all of this is happening, Blackstone decides to increase the fire power of the main team by recruiting a group of trainee heroes to be led by Astra. Technically, these new heroes-in-training will be blocked from most combat operations, but in the insanity that has become Chicago that is often impossible. With the city in constant danger the Sentinels are going to need all the help they can get to win this face off.

Enriching all the action is the growing cast of very strong characters and intriguing personal relationships that are Harmon’s bread and butter. One of the young Sentinels is a Merlin-type super who believes she is Ozma of Oz. Grendel is a shape changer who gained his powers the day he lost his family in the Ascendant’s first mass homicide. Megaton’s family has deserted him because they’re afraid of his new superpowers. These backdrops create intriguing problems for Astra to deal with that can’t be simply punched and kicked into submission.

Finally, in my review of Villain’s Inc I expressed some unhappiness with the change in narrator from K. F. Lim to Caitlin Kelly. I still like Lim’s excellent narration of Wearing the Cape, but Kelly has found her groove in the series and I was completely comfortable with her storyteller’s voice. She shows a lot of talent in bringing the large cast to life and I look forward to hearing her read the next book in the series.

Wearing the Cape 4: Small Town Heroes by Marion Harmon

In Small Town Heroes, Harmon pulls his heroine Astra out of Chicago and off on her own in his world’s version of Cuba. She’s receiving visions of a town being burned to the ground and learns that it’s in Guantanamo Bay in a way that fits in very nicely with Harmon’s super universe. Castro has been overthrown in this world, replaced by a disturbing super-powered dictatorship. Add in U.S. military forces, top secret research projects and a couple handfuls of surprises and you have the makings of yet another great novel in the Wearing the Cape series.

There is a great mystery that forms the thread upon which the whole novel is built, and I found the solution totally satisfying. It’s also really fun to see the developing Young Sentinels team in action at different parts of the book. The team is growing in both size and experience and they are clearly going to be a lot of fun in the future.

If you’ve enjoyed the first books in this series, you’ll be pleased with this one. I also think it makes a fairly good jumping in point if you’re wondering what the series is all about.

Wearing the Cape 5: Ronin Games by Marion Harmon

One of the things that makes Harmon’s Wearing the Cape series so interesting is that he avoids repeating the same adventure over and over again. If you’ve read any comics, you know that is a real danger in this genre. In this adventure, Harmon pulls Astra, Ozma, Artemis and Shelly out of the U.S. and puts them into a covert operation in Japan to find Kitsune before Astra is permanently trapped in a dream well. Because the Japanese government is not cooperating with their quest, they have to go under cover, operating without the level of support they are accustomed to.

This is a great adventure. Not only do we get to see how Japanese society has responded to the event that created super heroes, we get to explore elements of Japanese folklore and their influenced on the creation of the Japanese superhuman population. It’s a great detour from the troubles in Chicago as the “Three Remarkable Ronin” (our heroes undercover) build a legend in Japan.

As usual, narrator Caitlin Kelly does a “super” job of bringing the cast to life. It makes rereading this series through the audiobooks a distinct treat.

Wearing the Cape 6: Team Ups and Cross Overs by Marion Harmon

One of the hallmarks of the great super hero series is the team up with other heroes and another is the cross over either into other superhero universes or into alternate versions of the hero’s reality. In Team Ups and Cross Overs, Harmon gives us a lot of each. These are quick short stories that not only give Astra the chance to rub shoulders with heroes from other authors’ imaginations but to learn just how important her efforts have been by showing her what would have happened if she’d died back in the beginning of the series.

I wasn’t familiar with any of the other authors’ superhero worlds, but they were self-explanatory enough that I had no problem jumping into the action. Probably the best short story in the collection was Grimworld in which Astra discovers a reality in which she died at the Whittier Base Attack and so wasn’t around to stop the EMP attack that was the focus of the Omega Night short story. That future is bleak and it was fascinating to watch Astra deal with the tragedy that had become the planet.

While I encourage every fan of the series to read this book, I also note that it is the weakest of the series. In my second reading of the collection, I found that many of the short stories no longer interested me at all. Obviously, that’s not good. And it’s not something I’ve found with the other novels. Yet, I am still glad Harmon experimented with this multiple realities event and I think you will be too.

I have been working my way through the audio book versions of this series and found that a good narrator improved my enjoyment of this volume immensely. If you’re going to read it, think about trying the audiobook version.

Wearing the Cape 7 Recursion

Marion Harmon is one of the two or three best superhero novelists out there, and his Wearing the Cape series is at the top of the genre. Recursion is the sort of novel that can only be written with several books in the series to back it up. The story starts a month after the end of the first novel but things aren’t quite the same as we remember them. There are extra people on the team who weren’t there at the start of book two and Astra starts getting called into activities earlier than she was the first time around and everything feels a little off. Then Astra starts to recover pieces of her memory that come from three years in the future—except that she knows classic time travel is impossible—you can’t change your own past.

What follows is a wonderful reworking of the first several novels and a clever reworking of the past to make everything that happened the first time make more sense and connect it in a clever conspiracy to break democracy in the United States. It’s a truly creative reworking of the past that is brought together in an even more imaginative explanation for how all of this happened in the first place. This is a tour de force of the Wearing the Cape series and an absolute delight to read.

Wearing the Cape 8 Repercussions

The pacing and tone of Repercussions is very different than Harmon’s previous novels. Everything occurs at high speed with little time for the heroes to react and even less time for them to think. To add to the feeling of ever-growing frenzy, the point of view changes multiple times in most chapters and reflects a significantly larger number of character perspectives than we have been introduced to before. The civilized world is under attack and it is by no means clear if the Sentinels can save the day this time. Harmon has long flirted with post-apocalyptic settings—both in the visions of the Tea Time Anarchist and in the alternate realities of Team Ups and Crossovers. Within a very few chapters it becomes evident that this might just be the book that sees those dark ages introduced full time into the series. Starting in the United States and spreading outwards, the death count is higher than at any time since the first book in the series, and that number includes the heroes as well as the civilians. If you’ve grown to love the large cast of Wearing the Cape—brace yourself—everything is on the table this time and no one gets away unhurt.

So this book is everything in a superhero novel you could desire—tons of actions, great super powers, and a gritty plot worthy of our heroic cast. That being said, I do have a small complaint that I’ve had a little difficulty articulating. I have read every book in this series at least twice and am listening to the audiobooks now. I feel like I know the action and the characters very well. Yet there were many times when Harmon made references that made me wonder if there was a short story out there that I had missed (and maybe there is) and the novel was just jammed packed with facts about supers in the rest of the planet—as if after finishing the guide books to his super hero roleplaying game, Harmon just couldn’t resist feeding us information a little bit artificially.

That being said, Astra experiences a lot of changes in this novel and I found the character development well thought out and credible. I’m anxious to see what Harmon has in store for her and her friends in the books to come.

A Christmas Carol (Wearing the Cape) by Marion Harmon

Here’s a sweet superhero Christmas tale set after the eighth book in the Wearing the Cape series. Secular Christmas is all about Santa and this clever short story explores what would happen if a human breakthrough became convinced he was Santa and had a powerset to match (in the same way that one of Astra’s teammates thinks she’s Ozma from Oz). Interestingly enough, the governments of the world greet the arrival of Santa as a national security problem. After all, the jolly old elf is capable of visiting millions of houses in a single night despite their security precautions. What if he decided to leave something more dangerous than toys? Or what if someone could coerce Santa into doing that? It’s up to Hope and her teammates to locate Santa and determine if he presents a danger to the world.

As if the quest for Santa is not enough to make this a holiday festival of a story, Hope also gets to interact with several of the Sentinels from an alternate universe introduced in book 6. Overall this is a sweet tale which also hints at a Valentine’s Day story as that is the apparent date of Astra’s coming wedding to Kitsune.

Wearing the Cape 9 Joyeuse Guard

After two long years, Astra returns and Harmon does not disappoint. Having “left” the Sentinels due to problems in the previous book, Astra now has to lead a larger team as she attempts to stymie the bad guys on a global scale. Rather than present a single problem, the book stretches over months and consists of several novella (including the separately published, A Christmas Carol). The structure is more like book 6, Team Ups and Crossovers, which is the only thing I didn’t like about the novel. This is clearly a transitional work with many storylines (Astra’s marriage, Ozma’s problems with Oz) making significant advances even as Harmon brings the team to a better platform for global adventures.

As we venture out into the larger world, Harmon gets to share with the reader his vision of the problems and limitations of the supers in his world. Sometimes the politics of global situations makes it hard to identify the good guys from the bad guys, so what can heroes do to make a situation better? Harmon has clearly given these issues a lot of thought, bringing a little more reality to the globe by showing how the superhero dynamic plays out elsewhere. All in all, it’s another fine novel in the series.