Monday, March 15, 2010

Magyk

Magyk, Book One of the Septimus Heap Series by Angie Sage
My Grade: C-

The critic’s quote that you find most often associated with this book is: “Heads–up, Harry, there’s a new young wizard on his way up…”

Seriously? Are you kidding me? This book is light-years away from Harry Potter. Out of the 12 children’s fantasy books I’ve read so far for this blog, this one was by far the most painful to get through.

When I read this critic review I thought; awesome, a great children’s fantasy book I’ll really enjoy. Practically all the customer review on Amazon raved about the creativity of the fully realized fantasy world in which the book is set. They said the action held their interest and they couldn’t put the book down.

So I started to read with eager enthusiasm.  But this eagerness quickly fizzled away. The beginning is slow. There were quite a few awkwardly worded sentences and the writing style, in general, was mediocre. Some reviewers seemed to think the book’s merit lay in its convoluted premise, and, after explaining it, cheekily add on the end: “confused yet?” As in, “just wait, this book is going to take you for a ride.” Not. I kept waiting for the payoff, for the point where I was going to get sucked in and totally hooked the way every other reviewer of this book promises you will be. So, even though I wasn’t initially impressed, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and continued onward. Because besides, when I was a kid reading a fantasy book that my older sister or someone else had recommended to me, I didn’t always get into it right away. But I found if I persevered through the first few chapters I would find the place where I understood what my sister had been raving about, and I would end up loving it. Some of my favorite fantasy books start out really slowly. But by the end you appreciate the slow build-up because you get to know the characters better, and the story becomes more meaningful. So with Magyk, I thought maybe this is like that. And if it is, then it’s probably going to turn out to be really good. Imagine my disappointment. About half way through reading the book I started to search again for others who might have the same opinion as I did. I couldn’t find a one. Everyone gave this book stellar reviews! I didn’t get it! Was I missing something? Finally I found some people who agreed with me on some points, but there weren’t many.

Here’s why I didn’t like it:

I didn’t like any of the characters. Jenna was annoying. Nicko felt one-dimensional. Silas seemed like a fool. Marcia Overstrand, the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, just felt comical. The Hunter wasn’t scary, the Supreme Custodian wasn’t cunning. Even DomDaniel, the evil wizard, didn’t really have a personality. He gave no sense of foreboding like he was supposed to. Alther, the wizard ghost, didn’t contribute much to the tapestry of this fantasy world and was used mainly as a plot device. Aunt Zelda was ok, but I didn’t get the warm fuzzies around her like I think I was supposed to. The Heap’s dog Maxie was even more annoying than Jenna, and also didn’t contribute anything to the story. The one character I found slightly interesting was Stanley the Messenger Rat. Boy 412 was also a bit intriguing, but he would have been much more so if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious that he was Septimus. The big reveal at the end was extremely anticlimactic because of this.

The italicized and bolded words that are supposed to act as visual aids for when a wizard performs a spell are only distracting and obnoxious. Overall, the whole tone of the story is corny and cheesy. None of the characters are fully realized, and there are far too many than is needed. It was as if the author thought that stuffing her book full of quirky characters was a sign of a richly woven magical adventure. But it was quite plain that many characters had no purpose except to move the story along, and they just end up confusing the reader because we never get to know them enough to want to care about them.

This book just wasn’t clever enough for me. I knew the answers to the ‘mysteries’ before the book finished supplying me with the questions. The plot was predictable and, despite the mystery of the baby swaps in the beginning, lacked intricacy.

The map in the front of the book:


I really didn’t like the haphazard mingling of different cultural mythologies. Septimus is the seventh son of a seventh son, and therefore has great magical powers. The fantasy world is that of a feudal medieval town with a castle at its center and a wizard tower. Fine. These are Celtic and English devices that are commonly used in children’s fantasy. However, out of nowhere comes an ancient story of Hotep-Ra, hieroglyphs, and a Dragon Boat. Using Egyptian mythology as a backdrop to magic drawn from Celtic sources in a society that is clearly western European clashes unsettlingly and just looks messy. This element only supports the reader’s sense that this is an underdeveloped fantasy world, created by stitching a flimsy patchwork of bits and pieces and held together by a thin thread.

There are some strange incongruities in here, like how Sage describes how Jenna feels hugging Alther, who is a ghost, as “though a warm summer breeze had wafted through her.”
Really? Anyone who knows anything about ghosts knows that they feel cold. I don’t mean to sound like a know-it-all here, but inconsistencies like this only serve to disconnect the reader from the fantasy world. Fantasy only works so long as it is relatable to the reader. If it is so far removed from reality that it just feels stupid or bizarre, then it becomes impossible for the reader to suspend his disbelief in order to enjoy the story.

There is an interesting sub-plot squeezed into the corner of this book, and for me it was one of the most interesting parts of the story. I wish the author had spent more time on this plotline, which is the back-story of the evil wizard’s Apprentice and his unusual connection to Septimus Heap. The reader is supplied with critical information about this character only at the eleventh hour, and we end up feeling cheated out of a proper ending. The Apprentice’s story only acted as a deus ex machina to wrap everything up. I feel like there was a lot of potential here for his story to be more integrated into the main plot, or even mentioned in middle of the book instead of at the point where the story is practically over. If the Apprentice had been more involved, I believe it would have kept the reader guessing about the actually identity of Septimus until the very end. As it stands, it just doesn’t make sense to bring in a character that has such weight at such a late stage. For those of you unfamiliar with the deus ex machina plot device, it is generally considered to be a poor storytelling technique, for the simple reason that the reader feels cheated out of a proper ending.

Besides the six books in the Septimus Heap series, there is also a published Magykal Papers, which is sort of an appendices to the books, containing richly illustrated pages of maps, letters, documents, journal excepts, a restaurant guide, and other things associated with the characters and this fantasy world. I paged through it recently in the bookstore, and if I hadn’t read the first book already, this would have made the series appear more interesting than it actually is – which goes to show that clever marketing devices such as this work well.

Visit the author’s website: http://angiesage.com/

Evermore

Evermore by Alyson Noel

My Grade: C

Setting:
This story is about a girl named Ever who is the sole survivor of a car crash that killed the rest of her family: Mom, Dad, Sister, and dog. She moves in with her aunt and changes schools. She becomes withdrawn and antisocial, hanging out with a goth girl and a gay boy - the misfits. Part of the reason for this is because the accident gave her the ability to see people's auras, read their minds and know their life story by touching them. At her old school she was a popular cheerleader, but here the popular kids tease her. One day a new boy arrives at school and gives her a red tulip and silences the voices in her head. She is enthralled, and typical high school romance ensues. It's a good premise for a teen novel, even similar to Twilight's. But alas, it is leagues inferior to everyone's favorite vampire book. This turns out to be a copycat, trying to cash in on a popular trend but sadly is nowhere near as good as the original.

My thoughts:

Overall, this book is mediocre. I don't really know why it gets so much publicity over other better books geared for teenage girls. There was nothing particularly special about the story or the writing that stood out to me as something that makes this a really great book. In fact, I found the present tense format to be quite jarring. I don't think the author has the writing talent to be able to pull off a full-length novel written in the present tense. Since most narratives are written in past tense, it usually feels awkward reading in the present tense unless the author is skillful enough to make you not notice it after a while. This didn't happen in Evermore. Every time I picked it up the wording felt cumbersome.

I kept waiting for the 'good part,' as I call it. You know, the part usually just past the middle where the clues leading up to that point come together to tell you what's really going on, or where your suspicion that someone who looks like an ordinary person is really magical or mythical in some way are confirmed. But it wasn't there, at least not until the very end. And when it happened it wasn't very exciting, or not explained well. At least not well enough for me to remember it a few months after reading the book, which is when I am writing this review.


One part I really didn't like was how Ever had a relationship with her sister's ghost for a large part of the story. The way it was done seemed corny to me. There was too much of that and not enough of Ever's aunt's friend the psychic, whom Ever wanted nothing to do with. I wish that conflict had played out a bit more and the author had dug a bit deeper into the real nature of Ever's abilities. Having a psychic who was willing to help but never really did seemed like a wasted opportunity. She would have been a perfect character to use as a vehicle through which Ever could better understand and gain control of her abilities.

Another thing I didn't like was how I didn't see what Ever and every other girl at her school saw in Damen, the mysterious new boy. I couldn't get excited about him the way she did, I didn't even really like him sometimes. This could just be personal preference, but it made me disinterested in the story.

Overall there was no spark. The whole story felt dull, despite supernatural abilities and mysteries contained in the plot.

Alyson Noel's website has quotes from critics saying her Immortal series is "addictive" "beautiful" "haunting" and "mesmerizing." I guess they were reading a different book than I was. Or maybe it gets phenomenally better in the second and third installments. But based on the story structure and the style of writing, I doubt it. And besides, first impressions are the most important; you need to make your readers fall in love with your characters from the get-go, so they are hooked and yearning for more. But I know I sound harsh. This isn't the worst book I've read by any means. It's great for a high school girl who just wants some light escapism. All I'm saying is it didn't capture me and sweep me away the way some books do (Most recently, The Twilight Saga). 

The best thing about this book is its cover art:


I bought Evermore and its sequel, Blue Moon, at the same time as I assumed from the popularity of this series that it would be worth reading more than just the first book. Unfortunately I was wrong, and I have little interest in continuing to read the series.


Visit the author's website: http://www.alysonnoel.com/

The Alchemyst






The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott

My Grade: D-

In a nutshell: don’t bother.

This was the first book I read in my attempt to answer the question, “What’s popular in YA fantasy fiction right now?” Needless to say, my search did not get off to a good start and I finished the book feeling disenchanted and disappointed.  


There is tons of action in the book, but for some reason, it didn’t catch me. I struggled to push through it. I was afraid my quest to read new and riveting YA fantasy fiction would be over before it began.


The characters are flat. Not even hollow – there is no room to fill-in more character traits.


Another turn-off: mixing mythologies. I’ve seen this done well before even though I am not a fan. But Scott throws cultures and traditions together with little regard and even less consideration of their origins. He explains it away with cheap and superficial storytelling. The sad part is, if you are a young person and do not know of the traditions from which he draws his supernatural characters, you will either be contentedly ignorant of this problem or understandably confused.


The main characters, brother and sister twins, do not seem like 15 at all. I was surprised to hear that was their age. But maybe I am out of to uch with what young adult protagonists are like these days.


I know my view is in the minority – this book and it’s sequels have been extremely popular. It’s a New York Times bestseller.


I just don’t get it. It didn’t capture my imagination or captivate my attention.

Visit the author's website: http://www.dillonscott.com/

Amazon Contextual Product Ads

Books on this blog

  • City of Bones, Book One of The Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare
  • Eighth Grade Bites, The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod by Heather Brewer
  • Evermore by Alyson Noel
  • Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
  • Magyk, Book One of the Septimus Heap Series by Angie Sage
  • The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud