August 07, 2014

(+++) KORMAN, INC.

The Hypnotists, Book Two: Memory Maze. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.

The 39 Clues: Unstoppable—Book Four: Flashpoint. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $12.99.

     Gordon Korman (born 1963) is something of a one-man band in middle-grade children’s literature. He has created or contributed to no fewer than 16 series, and also written more than a dozen non-series books – and his first book was published when Korman was just 14. Korman has a distinct style that is something of a non-style, and this explains why he is so successfully prolific: his books fit well into series that include many other authors (such as The 39 Clues, to whose multiple sequences he has contributed five times), and their modest vocabulary and easy-to-follow plots mean they also work well in series written by Korman alone (such as The Hypnotists). Families with kids who like nonstop adventure with minimal characterization, quick pacing, few descriptive passages, and lots of dialogue (including characters musing to themselves in extended monologues), will find many of Korman’s works congenial.

     Both The Hypnotists and The 39 Clues feature an approach that is something of a Korman hallmark: the notion that shadowy fictional characters have had and continue to have profound influence on real-life characters and real-world events. Things do not just happen in the world as seen through Korman’s books – they are made to happen by various characters, both the good ones and the evil ones, for reasons from the selfless to the nefarious. Thus, in Memory Maze, Korman writes, “Mind-benders often affected the course of history, but they usually did it from the background, pulling strings in their own quiet way. They preferred to influence the big players rather than becoming big players themselves. After all, most mesmeric connections ended with the command ‘You will remember nothing of this…’” The current mesmeric expert, and the central character in The Hypnotists, is Jackson (Jax) Opus, who discovered his powers in the first book of the series and also learned there that his apparently helpful mentor was in reality a twisted evildoer intent on warping Jax’s abilities for malevolent ends. This was scarcely a surprise to anyone who knew that the mentor’s name, Mako, is a word for a type of shark; Korman does tend to telegraph plot points this way. The good-guy mentor who helps Jax overcome Mako (at least temporarily) and helps him out in Memory Maze is named Braintree – growing the brain, see? And as usual in coming-of-age stories, no matter how far-fetched they may be, Braintree is given to pronouncements such as, “‘The student eventually becomes the teacher. You were always destined to reach a level of mesmerism beyond my comprehension.’” Shades of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Star Wars! And that is of course the point: Korman quite deliberately ties in his books to elements of popular culture, not directly indicating the relationship (although he does often include references to pop-culture figures), but creating enough parallels so that young readers already steeped in certain kinds of fantasy and heroism will feel right at home in the worlds that Korman creates. In Memory Maze, the FBI is increasingly involved in Jax’s life, in connection with what may have been election manipulation through mesmerism (the old name for hypnotism, here revived by Korman). Jax himself continues to refine his abilities. And he becomes involved with the very rich and powerful Avery Quackenbush, whose memories Jax starts to take on during hypnotism sessions designed to keep the dying billionaire in a trance deep enough to give his scientists time to find a way to extend his life. The entire plot is nonsensical, of course, and is more fantasy than science fiction; but the exact genre matters little, since what Korman is after here – and what he achieves – is excitement, a certain amount of derring-do, and the usual unexpected complexities associated with the unanticipated memory-sharing in which Jax finds himself. And of course the evil Mako returns – no surprise in any book of this sort, certainly none in a Korman book.

     The surprises are muted in Flashpoint as well: it is clear from the start of the book, indeed from the start of the Unstoppable series, that Amy and Dan Cahill will somehow make it through yet another cliffhanger in The 39 Clues sequence and stop yet another villain intent on doing bad things to the world for his own benefit. The villain in this particular sequence is J. Rutherford Pierce, those two full names being those of 19th-century U.S. presidents and Pierce’s aim being to attain that office by fair means or foul (preferably foul) so as to become the most powerful man in the world and then – well, “then” is not really clear and does not really matter, since power is its own reward throughout the various iterations of The 39 Clues. In the previous book, Countdown, Dan’s life was in danger, and Amy therefore took a step that was sure to prove fatal (but of course will not). Poisoned in saving Dan, Amy is now searching the world for an antidote that will not only save her life but also stop Pierce’s scheme, which in the end is derailed by one of those plot twists that The 39 Clues requires and with which Korman is adept – in this case, the feelings that Pierce has, or had, for Dan and Amy’s mother, and how those feelings translate into a computer password that must, must, be guessed at the very last instant possible (as it is). The interesting thing about Flashpoint and many other Korman adventure books is that the outcome is never really in doubt, but the way in which that expected climax will occur is uncertain, so readers have something to keep them going even if what will happen at the end will scarcely be surprising. In the case of The 39 Clues, which is actually a multimedia project involving collectible game cards (six packaged with Flashpoint, as with each book) and online participation, Korman’s ability to lead readers on a complex (but not too complex) trail serves particularly well, and this fifth Korman entry in the various sequences gathered under the umbrella name of The 39 Clues is as effective as Korman’s previous ones – which is to say, it is not highly creative or particularly stylish, but is not intended to be and does not need to be in order to provide the carefully modulated thrills in which Korman specializes.

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