Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Triad: Brandon Mull's Beyonder Trilogy

The usual preamble and excuses for a book triad apply: I've fallen rather thoroughly off my nonfiction wagon, which is nothing new, but this time around, I also fell behind on my Goodreads reviews. It gets more complicated to find the reviews at that point, because the date added and the date finished reading get buried in the overall pile. But it so happens that I now have a stack of reviews ready for posting, and a promise to post more fresh off the digital presses, and so... ladies, gentlemen, other parties interested in the fine art of reading, I give you The Book Triad.
This one's a little different; I read an entire trilogy one after the other, and did a single review, so I'll just post that, with a bit of post-credit commentary at the end.  It'll be a fond trip down memory lane to the ramble-ridden book reviews of yore. So:
A review of

Brandon Mull's Beyonder Trilogy: A World Without Heroes, Seeds of Rebellion, and Chasing the Prophecy

After the break.

 The Beyonder Trilogy by Brandon Mull. I read all three of these books more or less at once, so consider this review a review of the entire trilogy. Mull's series is based on a pretty common fantasy premise: through separate means, Jason and Rachel get transported to a fantasy world that's in the process of being overwhelmed by an evil wizard named Maldor. Being upstanding young teenagers (who have no particular other way to get home), they decide to go on a quest to uncover the six syllables that, if uttered in front of Maldor, will destroy him. Book 2 sees them joining the forces of Maldor's greatest opposition, the Blind King Galloran, and attempting, with him, to rally their forces and make a trip out to the prophetess for some advice. And Book 3 splits the pair--the new wizard-in-training Rachel goes with Galloran for the siege on Maldor, while Jason and another group go off in search of an ancient seer for one last piece of vital information.
Book 1, I think, is the weakest of the three. And it's probably not a coincidence that it's the one that hangs on the typical quest fantasy the most. I found Jason and Rachel's banter annoying, and some of the individual quest elements were a little far-fetched; for example, Jason goes to a kingdom where the highest office can be gained by posing a riddle that stumps the current office's holder. Yes, the riddle challenge is stock fantasy stuff, but I don't think that the method is a particularly sound way of choosing a nation's new leader. Rachel also spends most of the first book as Jason's spare rather than having anything to do in her own right, and there's some weird gender stuff going on, as Jason insists on being rather protective of her. Luckily, the other books are much stronger, with book 2 delivering some genuinely spooky moments (the giants and the worms in particular) and Book 3 offering some good surprises.
Mull goes beyond the usual fantasy tropes when it comes to his fantasy species. There's the Amar Kabal, who are plant people that contain within them seeds that, when they die, can be planted to restore them back to life with the memories just prior to death. There's the displacers, who can have their body parts severed without ill effect. They can even have their body parts grafted onto others, which Maldor takes advantage of to put permanent spies on those he doesn't trust. (Put it this way--Galloran doesn't wear a blindfold because he lacks two eyes--he just lacks two eyes that belong to him.) And there's the drinlings, a race of hardy humanoids that live at about 1/20th the length of a human, but are exceptionally strong and healthy to compensate. They also have a bit of a built in martyr complex, where they cheerfully volunteer to die in battle.
That leads directly to another point, that the books have a very strange approach to death. A LOT of characters die in the course of this series, especially a lot for a Young Adult novel. The drinlings, with their cheerfully suicidal demeanour, might as well be called Red Shirtss, and the Amar Kabal, with their built-in seed, are fairly reckless as well at times. But it's not just limited to them. A lot of the "less important" characters seem to wear targets on their backs. I'm of mixed feeling regarding all the deaths. On the one hand, it may be realistic because they're in war times, but on the other, it seems like a fairly sensationalist way of raising the stakes.
All right, I'll discuss two more fantasy tropes (or deviations from) in the course of the books and wrap things up. I've been reading Farah Mendelsohn's Rhetoric of Fantasy, and she puts a lot of stock into the notion that, in most fantasies, we accept what we're told about a fantasy world as being true; that is, unlike real life, where history is an interpretation of events rather than a set of given facts, we accept that things in a fantasy story happened like the characters tell us. And I think it goes the other way too--we accept prophecies and things that we are told will happen, even though we understand that with most prophecies, it won't happen exactly like it appears it might. No Heroes subverts this trope in a fairly clever way early on, but in the later books, characters are very dependent on prophecy, to the point where it's the sole justification for their actions. The problem with this is lampshaded, but that doesn't quite remove it. The other odd thing with the series is that Maldor is surprisingly uncharismatic, unmotivated, and un-evil for an evil world-conquering wizard. Yes, he's clearly ruthless and willing to kill those who stand in his way, but he's not particularly interested in evil for evil's sake, or have much reason to conquer the world besides the fact that it's there. I think Mull could have fleshed him into a more compelling antagonist.
That said, it's a series that did interest me to finish it, and did surprise me more than once. It took a long time for the first book to hook me, but once it did, I kept reading till the end.

Still here? Good.  I think this book is an interesting example of what post-Game of Thrones YA fantasy looks like. It's still following the outline of the classic YA fantasy form, with kids brought into another world, going on quests, facing an evil villain. But the the larger campaign, the maneuvering and gathering of forces to gain advantages, feels much more like the politics of Westeros, albeit with a more obvious good-evil binary. The large number of deaths also make the whole proceedings more the sort of grim and gritty type of fantasy that's currently in fashion. The combination of old school questing and "realistic" politicking doesn't always go well, and much of Jason's accomplishments in the first book--beating a man in a baseball duel, winning a riddle contest to obtain a place in government--show how awkward a fit it is. There's also a subplot introduced in the middle of book two featuring a fantasy equivalent of Walking Dead-esque zombies that's a little too trendy to fit with my fantasy sensibilities. (And yes, I know D&D and fantasy in general was doing zombies before they were cool--my point here is that they feel like they're in the story because they're cool.) But that manages to build up to one of the series' genuine surprising moments, and I guess I can forgive it on those grounds. Overall, the trilogy is a combined total of over a thousand pages of reading material. Not the best 1000 pages I've read, but not the worst either.

Later Days.

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