August 06, 2015
(+++) THRILLERS WITH TWISTS
The Singular Menace, Book 2: Outrage. By John Sandford & Michele Cook. Knopf. $18.99.
The Elementia Chronicles, Book One: Quest for Justice. By Sean Fay Wolfe. Harper. $9.99.
Fast-paced adventures for teenagers and preteens follow a predictable path of peril, resourcefulness and ultimate success for their young protagonists. The way they follow that standard story arc, however, differs substantially from series to series. The Singular Menace is, on its face, an entirely predictable story of evil big corporations in cahoots with evil high-level members of the government, all conspiring to do earthshakingly awful things through their brilliance and nearly infinite amount of money – and all capable of being stopped by a few street-wise, poor but doughty teenagers with right and goodness on their side. It would all be laughable if John Sandford and Michele Cook allowed the slightest bit of humor into the story, so they are careful not to do so. The Singular Menace is as grim as they come, with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers occupied (if not exactly guessing) as it marches through its typical near-future dystopian plot. The second book, Outrage, is a clear continuation of the first, Uncaged, and will make very little sense to those who have not read the initial volume. Sandford and Cook make some attempts to bring new readers up to speed, but they are slipshod in doing so and leave more questions unanswered than answered – and some of the events in Outrage tie clearly to ones in Uncaged, so this really is a sequence that must be read, well, in sequence. What is going on here is a scientific quest for, ahem, immortality, undertaken by totally unscrupulous and evil military-style characters whom you can practically see twirling their metaphorical mustaches and saying “you are in my power – ha-ha-ha!” They are aided and abetted by just about every high-ranking person in just about every major federal government agency, or so it seems. They do their nefarious experiments on both humans and animals – efforts that The Singular Menace suggests are essentially equivalent, a subtext here being that animals are every bit as valuable as humans and maybe more so. Unfortunately for these rich, weaponized, perfectly protected, government-involved expert fighters and top scientists, they run afoul of some teenage ex-gang members, hackers and, yes, an artist – and the baddies have the misfortune to kidnap and torture Odin, brother of Shay Remby, a 16-year-old whom you do not want to cross no matter how much money and power you have. Uncaged was about the rescue of Odin; Outrage is about the drive for revenge that is now motivating Shay and her compatriots. Figuring largely in the second book are a partly biological, partly mechanical dog called X and a young woman named Fenfang who, like Odin, was trapped by Singular – but who, unlike him, was there as an experimental subject, and who therefore now shares her brain (or her mind; they are equivalent here) with none other than a demonically determined, very powerful U.S. senator. Shay and friends need to figure out how to expose Singular for the corrupt cesspool that it is while keeping Fenfang alive (the brain operation is causing seizures and will soon kill her) and while themselves avoiding capture and certain death at the hands of the militarily experienced but astonishingly inept enforcers of Singular, who remain resolutely one step behind the good guys despite all their spies, double agents, high-tech tracking ability, and contacts within major government agencies. Aimed at readers ages 14 and up, Outrage contains enough violence (such as one character knocking out another’s teeth) to seem “worldly” and “adult” to its intended audience. The fact that the whole thing is nonsense is neatly concealed by the fast-paced, cinematic writing and the utter disregard for plot holes and improbabilities/impossibilities in the good guys’ surreptitious battle against the forces of Singular and evil (which are pretty much the same thing). Outrage certainly qualifies as a thriller structurally and in pacing – a formulaic, highly manipulative one, yes, but that will matter little to the intended readers of The Singular Menace, especially those who were left panting with enthusiasm waiting for this sequel to Uncaged.
Milder and less noir-ish, as befits a book for ages 8-12 rather than 14-plus, Quest for Justice is the start of a sequence called The Elementia Chronicles that is intended for fans of the video game “Minecraft.” Like video games themselves, Sean Fay Wolfe’s novel is filled with violence that sounds horrific but is so over-the-top that, unlike the violence in Outrage, it is hard to take seriously: “Minotaurus was the one who led the charge on the rioters now. He killed without mercy, slicing through anyone in his way with that giant battle-axe. Within a matter of minutes, the riot had stopped, but Minotaurus was still killing. It took five Potions of Slowness thrown by his own men to finally subdue him.” Wolfe makes an attempt to interest non-players of Minecraft in his story by featuring a new player as a protagonist: as the “noob” learns how the game works, so do readers. And the plot itself is supposed to pull in those unfamiliar with the video game, since it involves the evil king banishing noobs from the Elementia server, forcing the good-guy players to get together to protect the noobs and reform the kingdom. Or something. Minecraft is a cooperate-or-compete game – players can join other players and help them, or oppose and undermine them – and some of that flavor comes through in Quest for Justice. So, as the characters seek help from others, scenes such as this develop: “Stan, resigning himself to the fact that this player would not join him, turned to walk out the door. He was just walking down the steps when something hit him in the back of the head, knocking him to the street. He spun around, axe in hand, ready to confront the Mechanist who had attacked him, but instead he noticed a book that had landed next to him. It said Full Schematics of Element Castle’s Redstone Defenses, and the author was Mecha11. …Stan looked in awe at the book, which would allow them to safely predict the locations of all the King’s hidden automated traps in his courtyard while they attacked.” Stan cannot spend long looking at the book – there are zombies and skeletons roaming about – but the point is that help can come from unlikely and unexpected sources here, which of course means that evil can emerge unexpectedly as well. A big difference between The Elementia Chronicles and The Singular Menace is that Wolfe is always aware that he is writing a story about a world that does not and never could exist, one that is peopled (if that is the word) by characters and settings made of Lego-like blocks. The Singular Menace uses verisimilitude to indicate that its world could exist and maybe even does exist – maybe it is our world, however awful that idea seems. The Elementia Chronicles is fully aware of the game-play nature of the story in Quest for Justice, which means that characters have names such as Mella, Oob and Blerge, and the characters themselves know they exist in a video game world: “‘Oh, we have vowed to never speak the name of the Sacred One again! We have received a sign from the almighty Notch that in repayment for his sacrifice, we are never to speak the name of the Sacred One again!’ ‘The almighty Notch? Who is Notch?’ asked Charlie… ‘He’s the guy who created Minecraft,’ hissed DZ under his breath…” So the twist here is that the action takes place within a video game world whose characters know that is where they are – and readers familiar with that world (or interested in becoming familiar with it) will find the narrative entertaining, if scarcely profound or even particularly enlightening about how the world of Minecraft really works.