September 11, 2014


The School for Good and Evil 2: A World without Princes. By Soman Chainani. Harper. $16.99.

Kate the Great #1: Except When She’s Not. By Suzy Becker. Crown. $12.99.

     There is potential, and then there is potential unfulfilled, and then there is potential not fulfilled yet. Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil was fraught with potential, a wonderful debut novel that not only turned fairy-tale tropes on their head but also raised some genuinely thoughtful questions about good, evil and the many grey areas in between. The book cried out for a sequel, and its conclusion made it clear that there would be one, although how there would be one was a reasonable question, since the novel’s chief manipulator/evildoer was thoroughly defeated (to the point of being dead). Now we know how: through a distinctly inferior followup novel that eliminates the thoughtfulness of the original, creates a substitute for the primary bad guy of the first book, and eventually even finds a way to resurrect that initial evil character – in a bit of plot absurdity that borrows rather too much from the fairy-tale concepts that Chainani neatly twisted and embellished in his first outing. The original idea of a world in which stereotypical Good and Evil characters attend separate academies that are really part of a single school was an excellent one. And the basic plot mover was very clever: two girls being brought to the school and placed – so they believe – in the wrong sections of it. It turns out, in the first book, that the girl placed in Evil belongs there, despite her princess-like appearance and mannerisms, while the one placed in Good may look dark and witchy but is actually in the correct place as well. Eventually reconciled despite many dangers and misunderstandings, the girls at the end escape the school and its fairy-tale world altogether. But in the second book, that world calls to them again, and when they return this time, they find that the opposing school contingents are now not Good and Evil but Boys and Girls. Oh, that’s original. And it is only one of a series of disappointments in A World without Princes. Sophie, who looks angelic but is a very foul witch internally, is so overdone in this book that any balance between her and actually-good Agatha is completely lost. Sophie has become a cardboard character, a type, utterly narcissistic, manipulative, untruthful, scheming, and all the other things one would expect of an Evil character: there is no tension anymore, except insofar as readers will wonder why Agatha is such an idiot that it takes her considerable time to realize what Sophie is and what she is doing. Yes, Agatha has been simplified, too, turned into a slow-witted, slow-on-the-uptake character who knows what she has to do but constantly questions herself and doubts herself and ties herself into knots because maybe, maybe, just maybe all the evidence involving Sophie is wrong. This is simplification to the point of caricature, and this is what Chainani does throughout the book with other characters as well, including other girls as well as the teachers and the absurdly overdone dean of the girls’ school (who is so formulaic that she would be twirling a mustache if she had one). What rescues A World without Princes from the abyss of total mediocrity is the quality of Chainani’s writing: even with so unpromising a plot, he manages to create cinematic scenes whose action-packed pace will keep many readers interested and unconcerned about the gaping plot holes and dumbing-down of the whole story arc. The result is a book that is a lot of fun to read and almost no fun at all to think about – a real shame, since the first book invited both enjoyment and thoughtfulness. However, there is sure to be a sequel to this sequel, and hopefully Chainani will find his way back to an approach that transcends the ordinary instead of becoming mired in it.

     Bright writing and pleasant pacing rescue the first Kate the Great book from mediocrity, too, although its plot is so ordinary that it might as well have been taken from a list called “what to write for middle schoolers.” Using the increasingly popular form of a highly illustrated book containing tons of drawings “by” the title character – a format that is not quite novel, not quite graphic novel – Suzy Becker makes Kate the usual caught-in-the-middle middle child, with a too-good-to-be-true older sister and too-cute-to-be-real younger sister. Kate has the usual middle-school issues to handle: school and homework assignments, friends and frenemies (no out-and-out enemies here), and family-relationship matters. There is nothing at all creative about her list of problems and concerns, but there is creativity in Becker’s illustrations “by” Kate, and they are what save the book and make it an enjoyable series launch. The “also known as” self-portraits on the inside front cover give an immediate clue to how “Kate” draws and thinks, and the many illustrations within the story rescue it, time and again, from becoming just another recitation of middle-school sort-of-angst. Becker clearly has a great time with these drawings – she even encloses the book’s back-cover bar code in a “Kate-drawn” zebra – and readers will, too: the moon, carrying an umbrella, three times reminds Kate that her music teacher said “well done, Kate”; a pie chart shows several possible explanations of “why I said ‘what?’”; “Robin’s cross-eyed fish face” is drawn three ways, including “Calder style – my favorite”; a drawing of a building portrays “Mrs. Staughton’s Brilliant Idea Factory”; there are pictures of potential new ways to communicate, including “singing gorilla” and “friendship herbs”; and so on. The underlying plot elements, such as Kate giving “frenemy” Nora a horse figurine belonging to older sister Robin and then having to figure out how to get it back, apologize and mend fences all around, are nothing special. But the way the story is told is special, and that is what can propel the Kate the Great series from now on. Potentially.

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