I have a secret. It’s James Gough’s young adult fantasy novel Cloak. It’s a terrific read and a solid entry in a trending genre but, thanks to Gough being a new author and Cloak being put out by a small press, you’ve never heard of it. It’s a secret I’d love to have more people in on.
Cloak is one of those stories that’s so simple that its value may go unnoticed at first. The novel’s main conceit—that many people among us throughout history are secretly human/animal hybrids, hiding the special abilities this gives them—is so clever that one wonders why it’s never been done before.
But of course it has been done before. What sets Cloak apart is how much Gough delights in exploring a world in depth that has only been dimly illuminated before. Animal-based fantasy novels often have mad doctors and super powers, but this is the only one I know of which has both. Cloak is The Island of Dr. Moreau meets the X-Men.
Gough’s innovations are more than enough to stimulate any reader: humans crossed with mosquitoes, for example, are the basis of vampire legends. Teenage enchants (as the hybrids are called) have plenty of free time for adventures because, due to their animal halves, they only went to school from infancy through the beginning of puberty. That’s an idea that many of his intended readers no doubt will enjoy!
Gough’s writing matches his storytelling. Yes, there was the occasional clunky phrase, but I don’t think 20 pages ever passed without a bit of authorial derring-do that quite impressed me. This is very beautifully done work for a first time author, and I can only imagine how good Gough’s future work will be.
And yes, Cloak has all the makings of the first entry in a series. Not only that, but I was so struck by the visual nature of the writing and story that I couldn’t help but wonder what a film version could look like. Descriptions of flying around tight tunnels and huge caverns in the book’s second half would tax the talents of the most advanced CGI rendering. A bigger publisher should buy Cloak, and some studio should snatch up the movie rights.
There’s not much to criticize. I thought the inclusion of a mole inside the good guys’ organization was a bit weak, but if I had written this book, I would have been tempted to make the mole…an actual mole. I’m sure Gough had the same temptation, and he wisely resisted it. Young people are often more savvy readers than we give them credit for, and there’s only so much corniness they can stand.
I thought the character of Dr. Noctua was a bit too conveniently saintly and wise, a bit too much like Dumbledore. But then again, Dumbledore is a bit too much like Yoda, who’s a bit too much like Gandalf, who’s a bit too much like Merlin. When you work in a genre based on archetypes, it’s hard to avoid some repetition.
Maybe Cloak’s greatest strength is precisely what sets it most apart from many other adventure stories: it has an excellent climax. Too often these action-packed, sci-fi heavy stories set up a final act that the author just can’t deliver on, but Cloak more than lives up to the promise of its early chapters.