November 30, 2017


Max Tilt: Fire the Depths. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.

The Glass Spare. By Lauren DeStefano. Harper. $17.99.

     The parade of novels for preteens and young teenagers in which skin color and ethnicity are placed front-and-center despite having nothing to do with plot, character development, speech patterns or anything else continues to grow. This approach makes sense in terms of trying to reach out to wider audiences for these books, but it is unfortunate that little is actually done with the material, which becomes shorthand for characterization rather than an element of it. Even authors as experienced as Peter Lerangis and Lauren DeStefano lean unnecessarily and rather lazily on the “appearance” angle to give information about characters in their latest series. Lerangis’ Max Tilt sequence has one of those intriguing but silly, vaguely historical premises that Lerangis favors: two cousins search for a treasure hidden by their mutual ancestor, Jules Verne. Max, the 13-year-old title character, has a white mother and Dominican father, while Alexandra (Alex), his college-age cousin, has an African-American mother and white father. The thing is, the two cousins think alike, and that rather than their parentage is what matters. In fact, what is most interesting about Max is that he has autism spectrum disorder, which means, first, that he tends to take everything literally (leading to a series of misunderstandings, some of them humorous); and, second, that he has a certain degree of synesthesia, which means that to him, emotions have odors (fear = fish). In real life, most people now bend over backwards to avoid defining other people by their illnesses, disabilities or other physical characteristics, but in Max Tilt, it is Max’s outside-the-norm perception and behavior that make him who he is. Max is left in Alex’s care (she is taking time off from college to write a novel) when Max’s parents have to go to the Mayo Clinic so his mother can have medical tests. Max and Alex soon discover tons of unpaid bills in Max’s home, including an eviction notice. So they decide to help by selling some of the stuff in Max’s parents’ attic – where, wonder of wonders, they discover a chest once owned by Verne. And the chest contains clues that lead to a lost Verne manuscript that suggests that Verne’s supposedly fictional stories were actually based on reality. Furthermore, there are indications that there is a treasure to be found by anyone who can follow Verne’s clues – a potential solution to Max’s family’s money problems and hopefully to his mother’s health issues as well. Absurdity piles on absurdity here, mounting higher when Max and Alex encounter the typical nefarious businessman type who has plenty of money and gadgets and henchmen and such and who is also after the putative Verne treasure – resulting in an uncomfortable relationship of teens with bad guy, which in turn leads to a globe-spanning adventure with the distinct flavor of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. The puzzles in Max Tilt are often clever, and so is Alex, who is defined primarily by creativity (that novel-writing idea) and a certain rebellious streak. Max, whose synesthesia is his most interesting quality, pairs well with his cousin, and the “uneasy alliance” theme keeps the plot moving in often-unbelievable but frequently entertaining ways. Max Tilt: Fire the Depths is at bottom a fairly standard adventure tale for young readers, with Lerangis’ typically skilled pacing moving the story along well and neatly setting up the novel as the first in a multi-book series.

     The Glass Spare, intended as the first book of only two, is aimed at slightly older readers (13 and up rather than 8-12). DeStefano creates a rather odd setting here: much of the world is standard-issue fantasy, but there are also steampunk elements such as dirigibles and technological ones such as data goggles, as well as telephones and other forms of technology. The whole thing does not hang together particularly well. The racial element here mixes white, 15-year-old central character Wilhelmina (Wil) Heidle, fourth child and only daughter of the royal family of Arrod and therefore a “spare” in the family line to the throne, with brown-skinned Loom, banished prince of an enemy kingdom. The twist in the story, scarcely an unusual one, involves Wil’s unexpected discovery that she has a limited but potentially significant power. Specifically, it turns out that under the pressure of an adrenaline rush, her touch can kill people by turning them into gemstones. Wil’s power emerges during a moment of self-defense and immediately haunts her. It is destined to haunt her family, too, including her siblings: heir-to-the-throne Owen, sickly but gifted alchemist and inventor Gerdie, and cruel and heartless Baren. Wil’s father is a power-hungry warmonger, and after Wil discovers her deadly ability, she justifiably fears being put to use to further his ambitions – as has already happened to Gerdie. Unfortunately, Wil accidentally kills a family member right in front of her father, and she is immediately banished – soon to be captured by rebels, including Loom. A romance predictably blossoms between Loom and Wil, and indeed there is a great deal that is predictable about The Glass Spare, including the cardboard nature of most characters and the generic reasons they have for their actions. It is difficult to care very much about any of the people – the authorial manipulation of their actions and emotions is overly obvious – and the rather odd world building makes the book less involving than might be expected from a work that contains so many disparate elements. The underlying themes of good and evil, science and magic, are conventional ones as well. Perhaps the planned sequel, which is clearly set up at the end of The Glass Spare, will more effectively tie together some of the scattered elements found here.

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