February 04, 2021


Max & the Midknights 2: Battle of the Bodkins. By Lincoln Peirce. Crown. $13.99.

     Amid the many medieval marvels, remarkable romances and splendid sagas of times gone by, the wizardly wonders of Max & the Midknights have, alas, gone unreported and unrecognized. “Methinks it is past time for reading about Max to become a pastime,” must Lincoln Peirce have thought, and forsooth, lo and behold, and ods bodikins, the original tale of the redoubtable renegades now spawns a sequel with some very odd bodkins indeed.

     “Whence comes this and by what method?” you may well ask; and, well, it is a good question, if awkwardly phrased, and none but Lincoln Peirce can know the complete answer in the fullness of time.

     So: the creator of the long-running and longstanding Big Nate comic strip has produced the second illustrated novel – not quite a graphic novel, but a novel with ample illustrations – featuring the almost-knights of Byjovia and their redoubtable if not quite fearless leader, Max. Although Max is a girl and comic-strip Nate is a boy, the resemblances between the two are many and varied, not only attitudinally but also through their facial expressions, such as the one-eye-wide-open-and-one-a-straight-line-or-tiny-circle one used by Peirce to convey a combination of befuddlement and disapproval (a useful expression for Max as early as page 8 of the new book, and then on page 25, and on page 102, and – you get the idea).

     The Midknights all return for Battle of the Bodkins, perhaps a bit worse for wear since their original rescue-the-king adventure but as determined as ever to do derring-do, save Byjovia, and generally yuck it up a bit along the way. This time, though, they have to save Byjovia from themselves, which somewhat complicates matters. The “bodkins” of the title – a variation on the old word “bodikins,” which in the form of “ods bodikins” was a mild oath some 300 years back – are evil twins of the good guys, doppelgängers representing all sorts of badness while the Midknights represent all sorts of goodness. But the bad guys look exactly like the good guys, or almost exactly like them; and, at least sometimes, they sound just like them, too, or almost just like them. So you can’t tell the players without ye olde medieval scorecard, which is part of the point and part of the fun.

     Like the first Max & the Midknights book, Battle of the Bodkins really is a lot of fun, partly because of its echoes of Big Nate and partly because of the way it diverges from the comic strip. Both books are briefly introduced by Nate himself, and the characters in the Max books clearly parallel ones in Nate’s contemporary sixth-grade world, from the short and rotund Kevyn, who invents the concept of a library in Battle of the Bodkins and resembles the short and rotund Chad in Big Nate, to Max’s feckless troubadour uncle, Budrick, a close parallel to Nate’s feckless father. On the other hand, Peirce has fun varying the elements of everyday life faced by Nate (school, classmates, teachers) and Max (magicians, griffins, kings and queens). The result is that the Max & the Midknights books are fun whether or not readers know Big Nate, being both different enough and similar enough to engage those who are or are not familiar with Peirce’s other work.

     Battle of the Bodkins has many of the same underlying attitudes and characteristics as the first Max book and the Big Nate strip: friendship, working together, that sort of thing – all quite age-appropriate for the preteen audience at which Max & the Midknights is aimed. But there is enough quirkiness in Battle of the Bodkins to make the book enjoyable in some ways that are quite different from those in Big Nate – for instance, by having Max’s knight-school class be carried on an assignment “to find our way home from the middle of nowhere” by magical clouds, to which the would-be knights ascend on rope ladders. Wondering what makes the things go, Max says, “I don’t understand cloud technology.”

     Peirce’s imagination runs rampant, if not riot, in Battle of the Bodkins, with all sorts of concepts that are just weird enough and silly enough to give the book its constant mixture of amusement and amazement. Nothing in it is to be taken at all seriously (well, except maybe for the foundational paean to friendship and working together), but both the writing and the illustrations are so neatly done – and work so well together – that the second book in this series is every bit as much fun as the first. The faux-medieval setting lets Peirce come up with concepts far too far-out for modern life, such as the wizard who, Max explains, “uses fruit to communicate. He and I once had a long-distance conversation on a banana.” And then there is another wizard, “who accidentally turned himself into a pastry” (he got “roll” when he wanted “troll”), who appears at an opportune moment to play the bagpipes. Peirce scatters this sort of whimsy throughout a book that also contains enough adventure to keep readers turning the pages – which is the whole point, of course. The Max & the Midknights books are a delightful spinoff from the world of Big Nate, with Max being every bit as appealing a central character in her “ye olde” adventures as Nate is in his thoroughly modern ones.

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