January 07, 2016


Nnewts, Book Two: The Rise of Herk. By Doug TenNapel. Color by Katherine Garner. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.

The 39 Clues: Doublecross—Book Three: Mission Hurricane. By Jenny Goebel. Scholastic. $12.99.

Swindle #7: Unleashed. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Adventure series for preteens take their protagonists in directions both predictable and uncertain – a necessity in order to keep the books entertaining while still giving readers a sense that they “know” the characters and their surroundings. The second graphic novel in Doug TenNapel’s Nnewts series thus goes in completely expected directions; and just in case anyone doubts that the young amphibian “fry” who is the protagonist will become a hero of major proportions, TenNapel calls him Herk, as in “Hercules.” The parallel is never stated explicitly, but hey, this is a sequence in whose first book the star cluster Orion was a significant participant, so the mythic resonance is there even if readers are not quite sure what it is. TenNapel’s skill at propelling a story forward visually is the main thing that makes this middle-of-a-trilogy book worthwhile, with Katherine Garner’s coloring being an additional important element of the book’s attraction: she has a wonderful feel for which blend of dark and light colors will make particular scenes more effective. For his part, TenNapel has a rather sly sense of humor that helps enliven what is essentially a straightforward story of bad guys (“lizzarks”) and good ones having various battles with each other and even transforming from one type of creature to the other. Indeed, it is the partial transformation of a couple of characters, one being Herk himself, that sets up what is likely to happen when TenNapel completes the trilogy. In The Rise of Herk, though, hints and foreshadowings abound, often with unexpectedly amusing twists. Thus, the tremendously powerful and evil Snake Lord can appear here physically only as – a talking radish (a clear borrowing from J.K. Rowling, but handled with amusement). When the Snake Lord appears in his disembodied form to the former nnewt Urch, now transformed into the lizzark Lizzurch, the evildoer says he wants his minion “to be my eyes and ears,” and Lizzurch replies, “Yes, lord, but we don’t have ears,” leading the Snake Lord to respond, “You know what I mean.” These lighter elements are only a small part of the book, but they stand out in what is otherwise a typical-for-this-genre story in which multiple characters and their viewpoints are shown at various times: Herk, his sister Sissy, their long-lost brother Zerk (now transformed into an evil lizzark wizard), and Lizzurch are all central at one point or another. The main plot of the book involves a lizzark foray against Amphibopolis, city of the nnewts, which begins after the lizzark general – named, ahem, Pigzark – tells his minions, “You may attack as soon as your hatred moves you.” Even here, TenNapel introduces a touch of humor: the attackers are brought over the city’s protective wall inside beasts called “geck-barfers,” which do indeed vomit out the bad guys after climbing straight up the wall. In the midst of the fighting, which features several gigantic beasts that Herk battles through use of magical powers that he is only beginning to learn how to control, there is a sweet little love subplot involving Herk and wheelchair-bound Launa: on the way to the desperate battle that only his powers may be able to turn, Herk stops to pick some flowers and bring them back to her. Awww! The Nnewts series is not TenNapel’s very best work, but it is so filled with unusual angles, clever drawings, interesting plot elements (which help balance the obvious ones), and excellent pacing that The Rise of Herk will surely have readers eagerly awaiting the trilogy’s upcoming conclusion.

     It will be quite a while yet before there is a conclusion to The 39 Clues, the multi-series, multi-author, multimedia series in which the Doublecross sequence is the fourth subset. Some new writers are now showing up in this very successful, very formulaic (+++) adventure series, including Jenny Goebel for the third Doublecross book. Although there is a modicum of factual history and geography underlying The 39 Clues, allowing it to tout and promote some educational value, the key to all the books is to put protagonists Dan and Amy Cahill into highly unlikely scenarios whose mysteries are unsolvable until, inevitably, they are solved just in time to rescue whoever or whatever needs rescuing. Like the other authors in the various incarnations of The 39 Clues, Goebel understands the importance of 1) avoiding any stylistic individuality and 2) making the last-possible-instant nature of the climax as explicit as possible. Thus, in Mission Hurricane, in the climactic chapter (before the inevitable epilogue that opens the way to the succeeding book), readers actually get to start out with the words “15 minutes to detonation” and progress through paragraphs that alternate descriptions of desperate attempts to head off disaster with two-word timekeepers: “12 minutes.” “10 minutes.” “8 minutes.” And eventually, inexorably, “1 minute,” after which something terrible but not too terrible happens, and the day is saved yet again in yet another thoroughly unbelievable manner. The plot? Well, this is the third of four books in which a Cahill family member known only as The Outcast is seeking revenge on the world’s most powerful and far-flung family by re-creating a series of disasters that family superstars Dan and Amy have to figure out within a strictly limited time frame and then prevent from being as disastrous as the analogous events were the first time. By the end of Mission Hurricane, Dan and Amy have not only saved the world – well, the Netherlands, actually – but also have finally figured out who The Outcast is. And they have started making plans to entrap him in the next and final book of this particular sub-series; that one will be called Mission Atomic. Neither Dan nor Amy nor any of the other recurring characters has an ounce of personality individualization, but that, like the stylistic blandness of the books, is precisely the point: The 39 Clues is a feel-good adventure series for preteens in which each reader is supposed to see himself or herself as one of the heroic characters and, through involvement in the story, maybe learn a bit of geography or history while vicariously fighting assorted villains and unraveling assorted improbable challenges. Add in the Web elements and the card-collecting associated with The 39 Clues – there are still six game cards included with each book, although now they are virtual ones – and you have a series of series that is fun for fans to follow as long as long as no one thinks too much about just how absurd the whole underlying premise is.

     One author who has contributed multiple times to The 39 Clues is Gordon Korman, but it is scarcely the only preteen-focused series he has created or helped create. For example, there are now seven books in Korman’s Swindle series, the seventh of which, Unleashed, was originally published in 2014 and is now available in paperback. Korman churns out these (+++) books with smooth skill, handling the mostly mundane and somewhat humorous Swindle plots as well as he handled the more-intricate and intended-to-be-more-serious ones of The 39 Clues. In Unleashed, the focus, as usual, is on canine protagonist Luthor, a Doberman and former attack dog, and the many preteens surrounding and interacting with him, notably human protagonist Griffin Bing, “the man with the plan.” Here as always, Griffin’s plans are over-complex and inevitably go just wrong enough to propel the narrative to a satisfying, if formulaic, conclusion. In Unleashed, the two plot strands revolve around Luthor’s newfound habit of chasing a particular vehicle – an exterminator’s truck – and Griffin’s determination to win the “Invent-a-Palooza” competition at school, defeating his arch-enemy, Daren Vader (name resemblance to Darth Vader undoubtedly not accidental). It eventually turns out that Luthor’s behavior is a matter of generosity rather than anything nefarious – no surprise there, but exactly why the dog does what he does is one of those minor mysteries holding the narrative together. And the invention contest provides plenty of chances for oddball imaginings, such as Darren’s “self-feeding egg cooker” and Griffin’s “Hover Handler,” which is designed to stop Luthor’s truck-chasing but which mysteriously goes missing. And then there are the solar-powered salad spinner, toothbrush with built-in cell phone, self-propelled ice skates, and other things that are too silly to have been invented by preteens and in fact (it turns out) come from other places. The moral of the story turns out to be, “An invention is just a thing. Friends are way more important.” And that could be more or less the moral of all the books in this series and in many other series for the same age group. Unleashed is certainly predictable: of course Griffin wins the contest, and of course he does so in an unexpected way. But the whole book, and the series of which it is a part, are enjoyable enough to have fans looking forward to the next plan with its inevitable Code Z, which means “that the plan had to be abandoned, and pronto.”

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