December 15, 2022


Max & the Midknights 3: The Tower of Time. By Lincoln Peirce. Crown. $13.99.

     The concluding book in Lincoln Peirce’s Max & the Midknights trilogy ties things into multiple knots, then neatly unravels them – simply cutting through some of them, as Alexander the Great reputedly did with the Gordian Knot, when actual explication and explanation would be too burdensome. Peirce certainly has no interest in overdoing anything particularly thoughtful in this faux medieval saga tied loosely (very loosely) to his long-running Big Nate comic strip (Nate introduces each of the books but is not a character in them). The Max & the Midknights tales are romps in which characters who are recognizable from the modern-day Big Nate adventures – but are modified to fit a world of kings and queens, wizards and dragons, and so forth – have adventures suitable to fantasies of this sort, all packaged in not-quite-graphic-novel form (which means the Max & the Midknights books are more-or-less traditional novels that are very heavily illustrated, with the art carrying forth a lot of the story even though the prose narrative is crucial as well).

     Max, a girl – the mystery of her male name is one matter settled in typically oddball fashion in The Tower of Time – and her long-lost twin sister, Mary, meet and greet each other in the first part of the third series entry, and then embark on a suitably addled quest to learn the story of their own background and parentage while also, hopefully, preventing war between the nation-states of Byjovia and Klunk. A lot of the fun here comes in the byways of the story rather than its main events. For example, there is a neat two-page terrain map, Peirce’s version of the ones so commonly seen in heroic fantasies, containing such places as Fancy Plain, Eeny-Meeny Mines, Blue River and Red River (which merge into Purple River), Sneak Peaks, and so forth. And the map is helpfully labeled: “Far North,” for example, has a note above it with an arrow pointing off the top of the page, with the words “Farther North.”

     The map guides the heroic band of not-full-knights (hence “Midknights”) on a quest that first brings them to an unpleasant encounter with trolls, from which they escape through the not-very-helpful assistance of a guardian witch named Evra (who looks a bit like the fairy who introduced the “Fractured Fairy Tales” in the old Rocky-and-Bullwinkle cartoons). Evra combines rhyming comments with math problems – which have to be solved by Kevyn, the brain of the Midknights and the inventor of the library card (a fact that turns out to be of surpassing importance). Unfortunately, the place to which Evra admits the Midknights, Bentley’s Pass, has non-troll problems of its own, and they have to get out fairly quickly, return to the troll area, and escape in a different (amusing) way. Evra then turns up again, later in the book, as the gatekeeper of the Tower of Time, which the Midknights need to visit so Max and Mary can locate their parents and their younger selves but absolutely not interfere with the past, except as is really necessary. Which of course it turns out to be.

     Another amusing byway, which Peirce eventually brings into the main story with a very neat twist, has to do with Max being pressed into service as a cabin boy (she is in boy disguise at the time) for a pirate named Cap’n Scab, who has a fork rather than a hook for one of his hands and whose crew members spend their time singing to or about their leader: “He thrives on chaos, woe, and strife!/ He’ll rob you blind and take your life!/ His hand is neither spoon nor knife!/ The murderous Cap’n Scab!”

     Fans of the Big Nate comic strip will get some extra enjoyment in The Tower of Time from seeing reflections of Nate’s modern-day adventures in Max’s of long ago. It is not just that short and rotund Kevyn resembles the short and rotund Chad in Big Nate, or that Max’s feckless troubadour uncle, Budrick, is a close parallel to Nate’s feckless father. There are also highly recognizable elements of Peirce’s cartooning that crop up from time to time: the cat from Big Nate on page 21, for example, and a kind of trademark “befuddlement” pose (one eye wide open and one a straight line or tiny circle) seen on pages 7, 18, 38 and 128. There is also a very funny bit of deliberate self-reference when Max and Mary are in the Tower of Time, searching for the right time line to prevent nefarious deeds, and open one time-line door to find a scene of Nate being yelled at by teacher nemesis Mrs. Godfrey while student nemesis Gina looks on with satisfaction – the whole thing leading Mary to comment, “That last one was weird.”

     Weirdness is the point here, and responsible for much of the silly fun, as when various characters are turned into fruits or vegetables and Kevyn accidentally becomes a cat for a while – a transformation that turns out to be super-important. Peirce does a great job of pulling all the threads of the Max & the Midknights books together in this third volume, and although there is no need for a fourth (the story is neatly concluded), it is always possible that Peirce’s fans will vociferously demand an eventual return to Byjovia and its environs, including the Upper Case Sea (shaped like an upper-case C) and Lower Case Sea (shaped like, yes, a lower-case C). How can any preteen reader – or parent of one – resist puns that bad?

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