October 15, 2015
(++++) TAKING ADVENTURES SERIOUSLY, OR NOT
The Last Kids on Earth. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.
TodHunter Moon, Book Two: SandRider. By Angie Sage. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Let us stipulate at the start that The Last Kids on Earth is utterly ridiculous, ill-plotted (almost without plot), tremendously silly and, oh yes, utterly ridiculous. It is nevertheless a delightfully goofy take on end-of-the-world stories, zombie-and-monster novels, and all sorts of post-apocalyptic fiction. Yes, “delightfully goofy.” The central character, 13-year-old Jack Sullivan, has survived the never-explained Monster Apocalypse intact and has kept himself going by thinking of the end times in which he is now living as a video game. He sets himself goals, attains them, and gives himself points. The goals involve such typically disgusting characters as zombies, Dozers (“straight-up GIANT MONSTERS”), Winged Wretches (which are sort of like mutated pterodactyls), and the occasional Octo-Beast and Stone Tower Monster. There is no explanation, zero, zilch, about how and why the Monster Apocalypse occurred (42 days before the book starts), and there is almost nothing about Jack’s response to it that makes an iota of sense. For example, he uses a “Louisville Slicer,” a sharpened, broken baseball bat, to fight most monsters, but a hockey stick to fight zombies because they used to be people and the hockey stick is somehow a more humane weapon.
Jack is an orphan who has lived in a series of foster homes, so it does make sense that he clings tightly to his current living space, a treehouse he built and equipped (rather miraculously and, again, without explanation) with all sorts of offensive and defensive weaponry. But that is about as far as Max Brallier takes the logic of this initial book of a series. Of course, being a book for preteens and young teenagers, The Last Kids on Earth must have a group of protagonists, not just one, and they must be well-balanced ethnically and in gender to accommodate political correctness and the expectations of book publishers. So to the extent that it has a plot, this series opener is all about how the team gets put together. Jack’s best friend, Quint, is an African-American genius and science nerd who comes up with all sorts of neat anti-monster potions and plans. The middle-school bully, Dirk, is dull-witted and super-strong and looks like a bulked-up adult, but he has a change of heart about Jack and Quint after the whole apocalypse thing and becomes one of the team. And then there is the attractive Latina whom Jack considers “the love interest,” June Del Toro, who turns out not to be any sort of damsel in distress when the three boys finally locate her. And a team needs a mascot, so of course there is one here: a monstrous dog (no explanation of why it is the only non-dangerous monster) that Jack names (what else?) Rover.
What makes The Last Kids on Earth better than most of the other utterly ridiculous books of its ilk is its Douglas Holgate illustrations, which amplify what cleverness there is in Brallier’s writing and introduce a lot more enjoyment. Brallier comes up with the idea of a “zombie ball,” for example – a kind of squashed-together, round thing with zombie parts sticking out all over – but it is Holgate’s picture that really makes the concept work. When Jack first tries to communicate with Rover, the best part of the scene is Holgate’s image of a five-armed Jack (that is, Jack gesturing all over the place, as if he has five arms, in traditional comic-book style) while a sort-of-smiling Rover stares out of the page and over Jack’s head as Jack yells “Murgleblargleburghh!!!!” The chief monster, which Jack names Blarg (and, later, Acid Blarg), is a 40-foot-tall terror because of the way Holgate depicts him. And the way Holgate brings Jack’s imagination to life is wonderful: we see “Quint Baker – The Best Friend” fully outfitted for the role, and Jack casting himself as “The Hero,” and a scene in which Jack imagines June surrounded by monsters and cowering while begging to be saved by “post-apocalyptic action hero Jack Sullivan,” and much more. And then there are Jack’s photos – he was the school newspaper photographer – which include, among other things, the “Doin’-Dangerous-Stuff-in-the-School-Montage” and a closeup of Blarg’s eye that provides a clue to the monster’s weakness. This is all, well, utterly ridiculous, but the pacing is so good and the character interactions so much better than usual in books of this type that The Last Kids on Earth manages to be pretty awesome, almost in spite of itself. And that, not the attempt at a damsel-in-distress rescue, is really, as Jack would say, “the ULTIMATE Feat of Apocalyptic Success!”
Far more serious – although it does have its moments of humor – is the second book in the TodHunter Moon trilogy, SandRider. This series is designed for readers who longed for a return to the world of Septimus Heap, which Angie Sage developed through seven books from 2005 to 2013. The new trilogy takes place seven years after the earlier one and introduces numerous new characters while bringing existing ones back. In the first book, PathFinder, Alice TodHunter Moon – known as Tod – went on a mission to rescue her best friend, Ferdie, from the evil Lady. Tod was assisted in her quest by Ferdie’s brother, Oskar; the two received help from Septimus, now ExtraOrdinary Wizard, and from Septimus’ predecessor, Ex-ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand. Arrayed against them were the Lady and her brother, the Darke Sorcerer Oraton-Marr; to succeed, Tod had to discover her own identity and develop her abilities as a PathFinder, which specifically meant finding her way through Magykal paths known as the Ancient Ways. Now, in SandRider, Tod is on assignment to get the Egg of the Orm from the Desert of Singing Sands before the egg hatches and the baby Orm imprints on Oraton-Marr and gives him so much Magyk that his evil plans will be unstoppable. This is a fairly typical type of quest in fantasy novels and is one in which Tod is, unsurprisingly, helped by Ferdie and Oskar. Sage paces the book with her usual skill, but it is not a good entry point for people unfamiliar with the world of Septimus Heap, and in fact the whole TodHunter Moon sequence seems intended for people who not only remember the earlier series but also are glad to have frequent references to it. For example, “The Queen, the Chief Hermetic Scribe and the ExtraOrdinary Wizard looked at one another, each remembering times when they were younger and had been in the middle of all kinds of trouble. Then all things had seemed possible, but now that they were older, nothing seemed possible. They weren’t sure if they liked being older very much.” This slight hint of uncertainty, even melancholy, pervades SandRider in scenes featuring characters from the earlier series, and actually gives the book more depth than it would have as a simple adventure tale. But the adventure is its primary reason for being, and of course it ends with Oraton-Marr and the Lady defeated – for now – and the baby Orm imprinting on someone, or something, other than the evil wizard. The difficulties of the search for the egg, and the twists after the Orm hatches, are not particularly surprising – it is obvious from the start that the Orm is not going to be allowed to imprint on Oraton-Marr – but the action is well handled by Sage, whose juggling of characters and actions is as skillful as always. Nevertheless, SandRider is a (+++) book, fully comprehensible only to readers who have already read PathFinder and completely enjoyable only for those well-versed in the characters and Magyk of the Septimus Heap books. SandRider has its share of exciting moments, but like other middle books of trilogies, it neither starts in an entirely engaging way nor ends conclusively. Hopefully the third TodHunter Moon book, which will be called StarCatcher, will sum up both this series and its relationship to the earlier one well enough so readers will be fully satisfied with the 10-book double-series total and the adventures of the characters in Sage’s Magykal world.