Because The Magnificent 12: The Call was one of the shortlisted books for the CYBILS 2010 Fantasy & Science Fiction that I was assigned to read and judge, I decided to write my review with a synopsis of the book as well as a digression on how I critically unravelled the merits of each book while determining the best of the bunch.
The Magnificent 12: The Call begins by telling us what a medium, regular kind of kid 12 year old David (Mack) MacAvoy is. He goes to Richard Gere Middle School in Sedona, AZ and is among the bullied in a school where there are so many different kinds of bullies that they have organized. Mack also has a raft of phobias that does not include a rational fear of bullies. Through a series of mishaps, he ends up almost being punched in the face by Stefan Marrs, the 15 year old 7th grader who is the head bully among bullies, that ends with Mack saving Stefan's life and being taken under his wing. In addition to this middle school drama, Mack (and Stefan) are witness to a few time-stopping moments in which a smelly, crusty ancient man appears and tries to talk to Mack. This is Grimluk, one time 12 year old from a parallel but ancient plot line who's chapters always begin with A REALLY, REALLY LONG TIME AGO . . . Being a person living some 3000 years ago and in possession of less than six teeth, a wife, an infant, two cows and a spoon (as well as a few other objects) Grimluk is almost as unlikely a hero as Mack and his phobias. Grimluk's life is very simple, which makes for some great humor, my favorite being the amazing creation of the number 12. The scene in which Wick, the beefy character tries to explain this concept to Grimluk is harkens back to a Spinal Tap moment when Wick says, "Here's what it is: picture eleven. Right? Do you have eleven firmly fixed in your imagination? . . . Well, twelve is one more than eleven." The story of Grimluk, the Pale Queen that he and everyone else are fleeing and the emergence of the Magnifica (a dozen 12 year olds) and the enlightened puissance that they must possess if they are to stop the Pale Queen and her daughter with twelve lives, the stunningly beautiful, redheaded Ereskigal, is intermittently woven in and out of Mack's. Mack finds his life turned upside down and tied to Grimluk's because, some 3000 years (almost) after the original Magnificent 12 managed to capture and imprison the Pale Queen for what seemed like an eternity (remember, even though this was the smartest group of humans assembled at the time, they still thought 12 was a big number. Naturally, 3000 seems like an eternity) this force of Evil is about to be unleashed from the spells that have bound her. Grimluk has kept himself alive in an effort to assemble a new group of twelve to defeat her when this day comes. However, they must also defeat the Pale Queen's daughter, Ereskigal, who, besides being and all powerful shape shifter, has twelve lives.
But, Mack is not alone, besides having Stefan at his side, a stunning accountant named Rose Everlast scoops him into a long black limo (and out of the reach of an approaching Skirrit - a grasshopper like minion of Ereskigal's) after school one day and informs him that he is the benefactor of a Swiss bank account first opened in 1259 with a strong box full of gold that survives to this day. Once worth almost a billion dollars, the bank made some bad investments and $1,007,008 is all that is left. Actually, $7,008 has been used to go toward Rose's fees (implied: good looks) and, with a credit card and fake passports that have Stefan posing as Mack's 21 year old brother, the two head off to Australia to begin the hunt for the the first of the eleven other twelve year olds who will form the Magnifica and stop evil. There they meet Jarrah Major, her mother Karri, an Indigenous Australian archaeologist for whom Uluru (Ayer's Rock) is sacred. Inside Uluru Karri and Jarrah have found what amounts to the story of the past and future carved into an interior wall of the rock edifice and this has led them to expect the arrival of Mack. What they didn't anticipate are the relentless attacks of Ereskigal and her minions, the Nafia, Tong Elves, Skirrits, Weramin, Bowands and Near Deads. Aware of Grimluk and his attempts to form a new Magnifica as the day of her mother's freedom approaches, Ereskigal is bent on destroying Mack and anyone who gets in her way.
Grant imbues so much humor into The Magnificent 12: The Call that it is almost unsettling at first. He maintains a light and jokey tone throughout the book with occasional glimpses of the inner depths of his characters. One of my favorite of these passages occurs as Ereskigal, or Risky as she prefers to be called, is rebuilding herself after her first death after a battle with Mack and Jarrah.
Hanging over all her thoughts was the realization that she would have to go to her mother and explain that she had failed.
There were times that Risky really didn't get along all that well with her mother. It wasn't easy being the chief spawn of the Breeder of Monsters. Sometimes Risky envied girls who were the daughters of the Mother of Cheerleaders or the Mother of Pop Stars.
There are other moments of seriousness, but they are quickly usurped by humor, making this book perfect for the younger crowd clamoring for some brisk fantasy writing but not interested in the human complexities that make books like Harry Potter, Cornelia Funke's Inkworld Trilogy and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy so appealing to adults. Grant's somewhat slim first book in this new series (will there be a book for each Magnifica and will it take 12 years to publish them all?) and the attendant website with its sweepstakes has a definite whiff of The 39 Clues series to it, and I have no doubt that is intentional. Created to fill the vaccuum that the end of the Harry Potter series created in the publishing world, The 39 Clues was conceived to create maximum interest and appeal among boys and girls. Knowing that it would be next to impossible to get that many kids to read a 400+ page book again, especially in the wake of the simplicity of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the books in the series hover around 250 pages and have clue card packs, secret agent books and a book of "buried secrets" to go along with the website, the online games and clues and the cash prize. In the absence of the next REALLY big thing, is this the new wave of fantasy books for kids?
For those of you who are interested, what follows are the details of my thought process as I tried to determine the merits of The Magnificent 12: The Call.
First Impressions of a Bookseller (Or, How I Judge a Book by Its Cover)
When The Magnificent 12: The Call by Michael Grant hit the shelves this summer I noted that a) this is the same Michael Grant (husband of THE Katherine Applegate - rememeber Animorphs anyone? Grant was Applegate's co-creator and the series was in print from 1996 - 2001. Scholastic is bringing it back with even cooler new covers!) who is writing the GONE series for teens. While the post apolcalyptic, dystopian setting in which no one over the age of 16 survives sounds interesting, the doorstop size of the soon to be four books in the series and my limited time for reading teen books has kept me from digging in. b) This book is really short for a fantasy novel, kids or otherwise. c) 12? Magnificent 12? Does this mean that there will be 12 books in the series? That's a lot of books. And, finally, d) there is a website for this book advertised boldly on the back jacket and, the handful of illustrations scattered throughout the book also have the web address framed and highlighted underneath.
I am an old, prejudiced bookseller set in my ways and I do not like change. I do not like books with a gimmick. I like books to be books, not websites, games, sweepstakes or Leaderboards. As intriguing as the concept of 39 Clues series is with its ten books each written by popular and award winning children's authors (why stop at 10? A new arm (leg? branch?) of the series with six new books is already in the works. Books 1 & 2 of Cahills vs. Vespers will be published in April and August of this year with the final book in the series being written by best selling adult author, David Baldacci. Oh yeah, another thing that really chafes me? Adult authors who, after years of best selling fame, decide to capitalize on the growing kid's book market.)
First Impression: Not my kind of book. Don't think I'll be reading it unless a review copy falls into my lap.
First Impressions of a CYBILS Judge Who Has Agreed to Read and Consider a Short List of Books for the Honor of Best Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) 2010
Man. I have to read this book. Ok. First impressions aren't always accurate and when I was invited to be a CYBILS judge, I promised myself that I would approach all books on the short list with an open mind as well as the closest I could get to the mind of a 10 - 12 year old reader. The CYBILS are about awarding literary merit AND kid appeal, which is a big part of why I wanted to participate in the judging process. So, I am going to wipe my slate as clean as possible.
First Impressions as I read The Magnificent 12: The Call:
A 12 year old boy. Why is it almost always a boy? A boy with phobias. In this post-Potter world, it seems that fantasy heroes must be both regular kids and specifically non-heroic. They must be scared before they can be brave.
A bully. A school full of bullies. Ok. This is going to be a fantasy story that takes place in our world, our time with our social ills.
A REALLY, REALLY LONG TIME AGO . . . Hm. Semi-alternating chapters set in the extremely distant past. The back story. Told in a funny way. Hm. I don't like humor with my fantasy. Wait. That's not true. I love Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series. Perhaps I should not be so quick to judge.
Final Impressions: Literary Merit and Kid Appeal
Literary Merit: As I said, I am a bit of a book snob and I tend to think less of a book that announces itself as the first in a long series that also has a website with games and cash prizes attached to it. Yes, there are fabulous series on the shelves rich with literary merit, but, since the rise of Harry Potter over the last 13+ years, very few authors have had the courage to write a book that is not part of a series.
I stop here to note that I AM A BIG FAT HYPOCRITE! One of THE BEST books I read in 2010 was The Roar by Emma Clayton. As I devoured the book, I did not know and could not discern whether it would be part of a series and I didn't care. When I got to the very end of the book and discovered that there would be more, I immediately emailed Ms. Clayton to gush about her book and ask about the sequel. So, yeah, I want more of a good thing as much as the next guy.
But, sometimes there just isn't enough of a good thing to go around. Maybe an author should write two or three tight 400 page books and call it a sequel or a trilogy instead of stretching it out over many books (Are you listening, Lemony Snicket??) I have this feeling a bit with The Magnificent 12: The Call. As entertaining and hilarious as Grant's writing is, I wanted this story to get moving much faster than it did. I felt like it took too long to unravel Mack's destiny and what his task was, even though it was pretty obvious from the start. I can accept the pace at which Grimluk's back story unfolds - I think a bit of withholding of information over the course of a tale can heighten anticipation and make for some nice plot surprises. However, the back story chapters were sometimes without enough detail or depth to give me a sense of place and feel connected to that part of the story. Perhaps I wanted too much to be able to place Grimluk in time, but the presence of chickpeas and a family goddess, as well as the fact that Grimluk considered an old man at the age of twelve, already having married and had a child, makes it hard to place. The only part of the back story where I started caring and becoming interested in Grimluk as a character (as opposed to a funny medieval guy with 5 teeth who can't count to 12) was when he and Miladew find themselves the last of the original Magnificent 12, heading to (what will one day be known as) Australia in their attempt to track down and kill Ereskigal, the daughter of the Pale Queen. The idea that the characters will travel all over the world with a credit card account loaded with $1,000,000 dollars and fake passports as they hunt down the 10 other members of the Mag12 while also killing Ereskigal 11 more times then defeating her mother and learning the Vargan language so they can get the job done is intriguing, but again whiffs a bit of the 39 Clues series with the globetrotting kids looking for clues and learning about history and geography wherever they go. Finally, while Mack's phobias make for some interesting vocabulary, it seems that they are mostly in existence for comic relief on airplanes and in small spaces, they do not seem to give his character much depth - yet. And, for a person who is so scared of so many things, it just doesn't make sense that Mack stands up to bullies.
Overall Impression: The elements of the book are diverse and interesting, and as innovative as possible in what has become a very popular genre, but I would like to see the story unfold at a different pace and with a bit more depth. This first book in the series feels more like the first third or half of a book.
Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Roar and When You Reach Me being a 9 in terms of literary merit) : 5
Kid Appeal: A regular kid with a raft of fears. A bully who appoints himself bodyguard after Mack saves his life. A scary, shape-shifting evil-demon woman who is the daughter of the Mother of Evil. And, by the end of the book, a kick-butt girl character (don't they have to be, these days? Why are there no brainy, save-the-day-with-what-you-taught-yourself-from-books-Hermione type girls proliferating the pages of current fantasy for kids??? It's all mini-Lara Crofts hitting evil forces with shovels). As the book progresses and the magical characters emerge, they are numerous and interesting: a golem, the Nafia, the Tong Elves and the Skirrit all have appearances and abilities that are either funny or frightening, depending on the setting. The website attached to the book provides pictures and descriptions of the people, places and creatures from the book which is quite helpful since they become numerous.
And the book is not too long, which I think most kids like. I know they exist and that they read Harry Potter Books 4 - 7 and all the Cornelia Funke INK books, but I really believe from my book floor experience that most kids prefer a book that is UNDER 300 pages. And honestly, I do too. I love to get lost in a long book, rich with details of another world and the characters who inhabit it, but I only like that about every 4 books or so - in between I need shorter books that aren't as demanding of my time and effort, and I think most kids read the same way. After all, this is the age of short attention spans when most people don't have the centered peacefulness to be able to wait in a line, on hold, in a waiting room, at a stoplight or whatever for more than 2 minutes before they turn to their digital device (phone, iPad, iPod, Gameboy) to distract them.
Overall Impressions: The combination of humorous story telling with a large cast of characters, most of them creatively crafted magical minions of the Pale Queen, along with the contemporary setting and aspects like iPhones, airline travel, credit cards and middle school make for an entertaining story. The accompanying website and sweepstakes should catch the interest of the more computer savvy readers who will be happy to play the games and follow the books online and on the page.
Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 39 Clues being a 9 in terms of kid appeal) : 8
OVERALL SCORE: 6.5