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Friday, March 13, 2009

Devil's Cape Review -- Only Seven Months Late!

Okay, I've owed this review to poor Rob Rogers since like SEPTEMBER. And by golly, today I'm going to write it for him.

I don't honestly have an excuse for the delay except that lawschool likes to suck out my brain and any enthusiasm I have for sitting down with any book more thought provoking than mindless brain candy. It's definitely not a reflection on Devil's Cape, itself, which now that I've finally been able to sit down and read it, is fairly awesome.

I always wanted to be the kind of reviewer that could rattle off pull quote-type material, but sadly, I'm not. I can tell you what I liked about the book, though (which is a lot) and what didn't quite work for me or left a slightly off taste in my mouth, and you can decide what you think about it.

Please note that there are some spoilers in this review. I've tried to keep any really good bits vague enough that they're more teaser than anything else. But if you want to be completely surprised, then it's best to not continue on.

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The first thing to note is that the city, Devil's Cape, is pretty much a character in and of itself. (As, to a lesser extent, is its counterpart, Vanguard City.) The descriptions and the atmosphere is incredibly vivid and I almost felt like I were standing there myself.

Since Devil's Cape is a superhero book, it's probably fairly important to talk about the superheroes, huh? Well, there are three of them, and the first part of the book is pretty much devoted to their (and the villain group Cirque d'Obscurite) formative years. They are:

Jason Kale/Kalodimos: a reporter who happens to also be the nephew of the head of the Greek Mafia in Devil's Cape. He has powers of strength/speed/flight which he got from being bathed with one of two strands of the Golden Fleece as a child. He becomes the superhero Argonaut.

Kate Breuer: a scientist with a focus in engineering and physics, and the daughter of the dead superhero Doctor Camelot. She doesn't have powers, but she's got nifty mechanical armor which has lots of fun advantages. She becomes the new Doctor Camelot.

Cain Ducett: a brilliant psychiatrist who'd run afoul of a witch in his misspent youth. He's able to turn into a winged, demonic looking figure (as well as turn back into a human again.) He takes the name Bedlam.

I'm not really good at evaluating portrayals of race and racial issues, but given how problematic the superhero genre can sometimes be with that kind of thing, it seems like I should try to talk about it a little here. Devil's Cape is in Louisiana, and the city itself is portrayed as very racially diverse. Also, Cain Ducett is African-American. As are a number of fairly notable minor characters. I really liked seeing this diversity in the book, but again, I'm not really sensitive enough to detect problems or concerns in this area. I definitely would have liked seeing more Patriot though, because a black, female analogue of Captain America who leads the old Doctor Camelot's superteam just seems like a fun idea.

Anyway, the three characters are remarkably likeable and sympathetic. I was the most skeptical about Cain at first, because I worried that the whole monstrous transformation thing was going to lead to massive amounts of angst. But it didn't, really. Certainly Cain's got some issues about the whole thing, but he seems to be taking it well enough and the moment where he realizes he wants to stick with the hero-thing is really satisfying.

Of the three, I probably like Jason most, because I have a thing for that kind of idealist, but it's a fairly close race. They're complex, three-dimensional, and neat.

You might have noticed that I mentioned TWO strands of the Golden Fleece. This is because Jason has a twin brother. Julian Kalodimos (who has his degree in business law, a fact which amuses the heck out of me) is heavily tied to his uncle and organized crime.

Fortunately, Julian (who goes by Scion) is more complicated than just an "evil twin" type counterpart. He's definitely got some dark deeds on his resume, but he's not irredeemable and tends toward being more of an anti-hero as the book moves forward.

He's also pretty funny, though of the two, I like Jason better. Being the hero is harder than being the renegade, I think. So I tend to find them more appealing.

They also have an interesting sort of shared senses thing going on too.

The villains are pretty appropriately scary. They're a carnival troupe that got powers through the death of the superhero Omega, who seems to be something of a cross between Captain America and Captain Atom.

They are interesting, but kind of one-note. (Except possibly for the surprisingly intellectual tendencies of Behemoth.) The majority of the interesting villain characterization goes to the big guys: the Robber Baron and mafia head-type Costas Kalodimos.

The minor characters are particularly strong. Such as Sam Small, a former hero from the original Doctor Camelot's team, or Pericles Kalodimos, Jason's father, who has his own moment of surprising badassery which I don't want to spoil but may involve a coffee thermos.

Jazz, the witch who cursed Cain Ducett, was definitely interesting since she skirted the line between victim/damsel and tormentor quite nicely. She also led to one of my favorite parts of the story when she tries to manipulate Argonaut through his dreams in order to get him to attack/provoke Cain Ducett into becoming Bedlam. She tells him all these terrible lies. And the first thing he does when he wakes up? He acts like a damn reporter and goes and RESEARCHES the guy. Nice!

Of course, we still get the standard superhero-misunderstanding-fight anyway, but I really like when authors don't forget their characters have particular skill-sets and professional instincts at their disposal, and don't have them act like half-cocked idiots.

One bit I particularly like is the use of "flavor text" at the beginning of the chapters, which provide a bit more background information or side notes that are interesting but not particularly necessary for the big story. A lot of them are devoted to heroes like Omega, or the Gray Fog. I also like the side asides about the original Dr. Camelot's team. Like the fact that Miss Chance changed costumes because of a mishap involving her top or that the Velociraptor had some identity issues since he could change from man to dinosaur. (I totally want that power.)

Also, we learn why it's a bad idea to swallow a 6-inch tall man whole. And that's just awesome.

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It'd be easy to stop here, but this is a review after all, which means that I should get into the things that didn't quite work for me. Since Rob asked me to read and review the book after already seeing how I disliked Who Can Save Us Now?, I suspect he can take a bit of criticism. :-)

In terms of gender portrayal, I did have a few qualms. I kind of feel bad saying that, because Kate Brauer herself is such a great character. Jazz is very well developed as well. I also liked the villainess Rusalka (who has a fairly interesting subplot). But really, aside from them, and possibly Osprey, a member of the Cirque d'Obscurite, there really isn't a great deal of female presence in the book.

It's hard to explain what I mean. After all, I just listed four fairly important characters in the book. But...well...

Kate Breuer has a mother. We know that. She spends Doctor Camelot's/Mr. Brauer's funeral watching the news coverage, and Kate leaves her a note when she leaves for Devil's Cape. But that's about it. There's nothing wrong with the fact that Kate is inspired primarily by her father, but it really doesn't seem like her mother had much of a presence at all. Moreover, while her predecessor did have interesting-sounding female colleagues in the form of Miss Chance or Patriot, their impact on the story is minimal. Heck, when Kate remembers/reflects on her extended family, she's usually thinking of her uncles Samuel, Rinji or Charles.

Presumably Jason and Julian have a mother, but we don't really get to see her. Which is odd, considering how central the Kalodimos family is to the entire story. Mob ties can't be the factor, since Pericles himself is not connected to the Mafia and still has a prominent role. Costas has a wife as well, Agatha, who's mentioned a couple of times at least, but never seen. As for Pericles's wife...honestly, Jason and Julian might as well have been popped out of Pericles's head.

Cain's storyline is the only one that really tends to heavily feature a female influence. His powers come from being cursed by a woman. And he starts his heroic journey chasing a woman escapee from the Asylum. I don't think it's done on purpose or anything like that, but it is somewhat off-putting that the only origin story with a heavy female influence features the women as monsters.

Osprey of the Cirque d'whatever isn't too bad. She's an interesting idea, but she's probably the least developed of that particular group. (Rusalka is more developed, but she is an entirely separate entity.) She's also one of the least freakish looking of the group. While her wings mean that she can't pass for human easily, they don't prevent her from looking sexy. Whereas only two male characters look remotely human, and only the Werewolf is described as particularly good-looking when he does.

That actually leads into the other aspect that left a slightly bad taste in my mouth, and I don't really blame Rob for it, since it's kind of a comic book staple. But it's still off-putting.

Essentially, the heroes are all good-looking. The villains (at least the superpowered ones) are primarily hideous.

Granted, Cain does transform into a monster, but he's able to change back into human form at will. He's a handsome man otherwise. Argonaut is also very handsome. Doctor Camelot is described less, because she tends to be in armor, but the armor has a pleasing voice and female form.

The carnival folk except for Hector Hall and the Werewolf have become monstrous. The Kraken's all stretchy and lizardy. The Behemoth is ten foot tall and has many ugly tattoos. Gork is a walking burn. Hector Hall might look human but he's also a paunchy guy in a very unflattering costume. Werewolf (untransformed) and Osprey aren't bad to look at, but that's about it.

The Robber Baron and Costas Kalodimos, at least, seem relatively ordinary looking. And certainly Scion's attractive, given that he and Argonaut are twins. (But then, his anti-heroic tendencies kind of take him out of this equation anyway.) It's a bit discomfitting to me, that's all. I don't think there's an intentional correllation of good=attractive, bad=ugly, but it's kind of there anyway.

Of course, I spent a lot of time on this part since I'd really like to see some improvement here, but please don't misunderstand me. I liked the book a lot and would definitely read a sequel. :-)

4 Comments:

  • At March 14, 2009 1:01 AM, Blogger LurkerWithout said…

    I think the Circus of Darkness are mostly ugly because they START as a group of fairly ugly carnival freaks and workers...

    You were pretty spot on about "Who Can Save Us Now" though. It has become the SECOND worst supers book I've read though.

     
  • At March 14, 2009 2:52 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Of course there's a REASON the characters are ugly. Very few people actually think "I'm going to make all of my heroes good-looking and the majority of my villains hideous."

    That doesn't cancel out the fact that the book DOES have a faint pretty=good, ugly=evil thing going on.

    (I could also point out that Osprey manages to be hot AND freakish. Hector Hall isn't visibly a freak but is still hideous. Gork was an ELECTRICIAN and supposedly fairly normal looking before the accident. And even Kraken was just double-jointed pre-getting all green and lizardy.)

    Possibly the whole impression would have been lessened if there were a few ugly good-guys around. Ones that couldn't conveniently change back into handsome human form. Certainly there's a precedent for that in comics. I don't know. The problem is one of those "hindsight is 20/20" things that I hope ends up avoided in any later books.

     
  • At March 14, 2009 2:54 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Huh, now you've got me intrigued.

    But I suspect, unless they ask me to review it, I'd prefer to stick to nitpicking GOOD books like Devil's Cape than indulging my masochism on bad ones.

     
  • At September 17, 2011 2:24 PM, Anonymous Geoffrey said…

    I absolutely match with everything you've presented us.
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