This was one of my very favorite books in elementary school, so I thought I'd go back and re-read it to see how it holds up. And... well, it's not as good as I remembered. I can't pretend I didn't enjoy it, but a big portion of that enjoyment came from the nostalgia value. There isn't all that much to recommend the book apart from that. I have lots and lots of thoughts on this book, and I don't feel like fleshing out a proper review, so here's a pro and con list.
- The characterization is mostly solid. Bobby was a good protagonist. I appreciated that he reacted basically the way an unprepared fourteen year-old would upon being taken to a fantasy world and told that he has to save everyone there - he screws up again and again, he spends a lot of time cowering and hiding, and he mostly only thinks of getting away. His character arc was a little obvious, but for an MG book, it works. The side characters are pretty good as well (except for Alder, who I wish we'd spent more time with).
- The pacing is pretty good. The biggest thing about this series that captured my imagination as a kid were the memorable and imaginative fight scenes, and those actually turned out to be almost as good as I remembered them. The pacing is fast enough to hold a kid's attention without being too rushed or relentless.
- The exposition is well-executed. There's a lot to introduce here, but MacHale does a good job of spreading out the exposition and weaving it naturally into the story. There are very few infodumps, and when they do happen, they feel necessary and well-placed.
- I was surprised by the presence of a strong allegory. The way that one tribe oppresses the other in this fantasy world was surprisingly relevant to real-world oppression, and it makes the book a lot more thoughtful than I expected it to be. It's a nice experience to go back to an old book and realize that actual effort and depth was put into it.
- The writing is terrible
. MacHale tries to imitate how teenagers talk, and it doesn't work at all. I feel like this was probably cheesy in 1999 when this book came out, and almost 20 years later, it's completely unbearable. It stopped being as distracting once I got used to it, but the book feels dated as hell, and I doubt it'll find much of an audience with kids today because of it.
- The plot and worldbuilding are pretty cliched. It starts, of course, with an ordinary guy discovering that he's special and being whisked off to a fantasy world. The cliche doesn't even work here like it does in Harry Potter or Percy Jackson because here, it doesn't work as an escapist fantasy. Harry and Percy both had miserable lives, and it was a relief to be taken away. Here, Bobby had a pretty good life, and he spends most of his time on Denduron being scared and unpleasant. So not only is the setup cliched, it's also pointless. The world itself is pretty cliched as well - it's a pretty generic, vaguely medieval world, and it lacks most of the fantasy elements that would make that kind of thing interesting.
- A black character dies first. She did play a somewhat important role in the story before her death, but still, her death essentially serves as a warning that things are dangerous, which is usually how black characters' deaths are used.
- There is some very clunky foreshadowing. In particular, there's one scene that makes absolutely no sense if you haven't already read the book. It comes out of nowhere, the event is nonsensical, and it's never brought up again. There's a lot of stuff like that - most of the foreshadowing is either very obvious, or completely nonsensical unless you already know what it means.
- The tone is inconsistent. This is largely a function of the silly writing, but MacHale also makes a lot of ill-timed jokes. The story is actually fairly dark - as I mentioned before, the worldbuilding is an allegory for real-world style oppression, and this is a book that features lots of death, starvation, torture, and even slavery. And yet, even though we're clearly supposed to read this as being dark, Bobby keeps making dumb jokes. The biggest scene where this is a problem is a scene where several characters have been captured, and are about to be killed. This should be a tense scene, but MacHale uses it to introduce a very unfunny comedy villain, and both the drama and the comedy fall flat.
- The resolution of the novel felt cheap to me. This was partially because it leaned on some plotholes, but mostly, it was just too easy. The allegory in this novel is about oppression, and ending oppression takes time and hard work. The implication here was that it all went away overnight, and that just... doesn't ring true to me.
- Mark and Courtney's story, which was intertwined with Bobby's, felt tacked on. Having read the entire series, I know that this is a persistent problem with the series (I used to skip their parts of each book when I first read the series), and they don't really become necessary to the plot until book 8.
- The stakes are very unclear. It's never explained in any detail what happens if a Territory falls into chaos, nor what it would look like if Halla fell. That makes it more difficult to get invested in the conflict - neither the characters nor the audience seem to quite know what they're fighting for.
- Saint Dane is a really, really boring villain. He has an interesting place within the allegory, but the actual interactions with him are dull as hell.
I didn't want to dislike this book, because it really did mean a lot to me in elementary school. But... well, there's a lot about it that doesn't work. It wasn't horrible, but it was kind of mediocre, and I don't have much interest in continuing with the series. Reply