Allen and Unwin has been sending me so much stuff lately that there is a backlog at January Magazine, waiting to be published, so for the time being I'll park some reviews here - enjoy! These are all A&U publications.
H.I.V.E By Mark Walden
This book has been described as ‘Artemis Fowl meets Hogwarts’. I would agree, though I’d add there are also touches of Catherine Jinks’s Evil Genius and the show Little Shop of Horrors. It might further be added that if Hogwarts is in there anywhere, it’s as if someone had written the story from the viewpoint of Draco Malfoy; the hero’s name is Otto Malpense (“bad thought” as opposed to “bad faith”) and he even has white hair like Draco’s. There are also two characters called Block and Tackle who might be Crabbe and Goyle if the latter were Draco’s enemies instead of his henchmen. There’s even a klutzy “Neville Longbottom” character who nearly destroys the school with his “herbology” skills.
Imagine a school full of Artemis Fowls - children of genius who have used their talents to commit crimes. There’s a sweet Scottish girl who had used the local American base’s nuclear early-warning system to listen in to her school enemies discussing her on their cell phones. There’s an American girl, only thirteen, who has already built a promising career as a jewel thief. And there’s the hero, Otto, who succeeded in overthrowing the British Prime Minister via public embarrassment, in order to keep his orphanage open.
These children and others have been swept up and brought to H.I.V.E. (Higher Institute of Villainous Education), a huge school for future world dominators and their henchmen, on an uncharted island. The headmaster, Dr Nero, reports to a mysterious figure known as Number One who is only ever seen in silhouette on screen. The teachers range from a dotty professor to a white cat of the Blofeld’s-pet variety who is actually a woman trapped in an animal’s body by accident by the dotty professor while attempting to give her the cat’s qualities. Well, that’s what he claims, anyway. I think the mind/body exchange will be important in future volumes of this series, of which more presently.
The argument given to the students for their studies is that villains get the best clothes and the best lines - who wouldn’t rather be the villain than the good guy? When a student asks the reasonable question of why villains do everything in such a complex way, Dr Nero agrees that they could just zap everyone without having to resort to a space station, for example, but when you’re a first-class villain, you have to do everything with style. (Pity the villain of Austin Powers didn’t think of this response).
Otto wants out. So do his friends, Laura the Scottish girl, the American girl, Shelby, and Otto’s room mate, Wing Fanchu. They plot their escape together. But things aren’t as simple as they think. And there are things Otto doesn’t know about why he is so special to Number One that Dr Nero has been ordered to keep an eye on him and make sure nothing happens to him. Dr Nero doesn’t know why, either, but in this job, you can expect a lot worse than being on the dole queue if you fail the boss.
By the end of the novel, it is clear that this is the first in a series; a lot of loose ends haven’t been tied and the last line implies future sequels. Based on hints thrown out in the novel, my bet is that Otto will turn out to be Number One’s clone and that Number One wants to take over his body at some stage. However, this is only the first book and my guess shouldn’t keep you from reading it or giving it to your children to read - they will probably not pick up on the hints, and I might be wrong.
You also wonder, whether it’s wise to educate all those future villains, since they will undoubtedly compete with each other and could wipe out the world in doing so. And why, anyway? What’s the point? Still, you have to suspend disbelief in this matter. It’s worth it.
There’s plenty of humour and plenty of adventure here and while some characters are over-the-top, the main characters are generally likeable and you do hope they will succeed. In the end, a good story and characters you can care about are the most important elements of a good novel.
NEMESIS: INTO THE SHADOWS By Catherine McPhail
A teenager called Ram wakes up in the stairwell of a high-rise apartment with a bad reputation, somewhere in a small Scottish town. He doesn’t remember anything about his past, although his name comes to him when he is asked. He doesn’t even remember how he got to his current sleeping-place.
All this soon becomes less important than survival when he discovers a dying man in the lift and becomes suspect number one in the murder. What was the dying man trying to tell him? Why is he being pursued not only by the police but by the Wolf, an assassin generally believed to be only an urban legend in the area? What about the mysterious Dark Man who has been looking for him via newspapers and the Net and clearly does know who he is, though he means Ram no good? In the course of the novel, Ram finds unexpected help from some characters and unexpected betrayal from others.
The novel is presented from a number of viewpoints. Ram’s chapters are in first person. The others are in third person - the Wolf, Lewis, the young police officer who is working on the murder case, Gaby the schoolgirl who first saw him with the body and even the Wolf. Gaby has seen the victim before, but doesn’t want to admit it because that would mean telling her family where she was that night. Lewis suspects that all is not right in his police department, but can’t prove it and doesn’t know who to trust.
All this adds up to a page-turning thriller for teens, and children up to about fourteen or fifteen should enjoy it. That said, you do have to suspend disbelief on a number of occasions. Ram rushes out of the building along with all the other derelicts, drug addicts and homeless people and almost immediately runs into a character who turns out to be searching for him, in disguise, to find out what he knows on behalf of his boss. So, how did he know Ram was the witness? When did he get the chance to disguise himself? How did he happen to be there when Ram ran past? There is a lot of coincidence of this kind in the novel and a couple of times Ram is rescued in the nick of time, by some convenient helpers who then wave goodbye and never reappear.
I also got the feeling that someone - author or publisher - thought it might be nice to do a series for those children who had enjoyed Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series and wanted more of the same. Lest you miss this point, there is a reference to Horowitz during the novel. Ram, hiding out at the local high school, decides to borrow some bedtime reading from the school library. He picks up a wonderful novel about a boy spy who has adventures around the world with lots of gadgets. Trouble is, we later learn that the novel he was reading was Horowitz’s novel The Falcon’s Malteser which is not, as the author seems to think, part of the Rider series.
Like Alex Rider, Ram seems able to get himself out of impossible situations, without even needing the gadgets.
I do wish that, for once, the villain wouldn’t waste time gloatingly telling the hero what’s going to happen to him, along with all the information about the fiendish plot being carried out - or that the Wolf didn’t find it necessary to carry Ram back to the flats where it all began so he can give him an appropriate death. Doesn’t ANY villain ever just shoot the good guy and get it over with? Probably, in this case, it’s because the hero needs to be alive for the next story in the series, when we will, presumably, learn more about the Dark Man and who Ram is.
Still, as long as the ends are tied by the end of the next book, it should work well, and it does make a nice junior version of The Fugitive.
TWILIGHT IN THE LAND OF NOWHEN By Nury Vittachi
Nury Vittachi is best known for his series of humorous crime tales about the Feng Shui Detective, a sort of modern Asian Sherlock Holmes who solves mysteries in between designing feng shui-correct offices and homes, and has an enthusiastic young Australian girl as his Watson.
In Twilight In The Land of Nowhen, he changes genres, from crime fiction to science fiction and writes for children rather than adults. There is still a mystery involved as the hero tries desperately to find a solution to his nasty problem, which could see him end up as literally a non-person. Intriguingly, the entire premise of this piece is centred around a scientific theory - in this case the Theory of Relativity. The end solution depends on physics, which is unusual in a children’s book.
Simon Poopoo has a serious problem, quite part from his embarrassing name, which is actually about a Hawaiian snack manufactured by his father rather than a toilet joke. He had been conceived out in space by his astronaut parents, resulting in his father losing his job and his mother being demoted to running supplies between the moon and the asteroids and at some time during her pregnancy, out in space, something had happened that affected both her and the unborn Simon. Simon hasn’t been able to ask his mother about it; he has been raised by his father and told his mother had died.
As the result of what had happened in space, he has been born with a glitch in his amygdala, resulting in a condition called displacement, fourth-dimensional synchronitis or “time-sickness”. In other words, he is three seconds ahead of everyone else in time. He answers questions before they have been asked. He reaches for things before they have been handed to him. This makes it utterly impossible for him to make friends at school; even those students who started off being friendly to him become annoyed at what they perceive as his weirdness. His teachers are also unimpressed, though he is good at his studies - a genius, in fact. His father is too busy going out with new girlfriends and working on his souped-up flying car (this is the not-too-distant future) to be interested in Simon’s troubles.
But Simon needs help urgently. Bad as it is, the time displacement problem is getting worse.. Simon’s only friend at his new school, the janitor Ms Blit, is more than she seems. She is a Stitcher, or “celestial seamstress”, one of twenty women responsible for “sewing up” holes in time. She helps Simon to control his problem to a certain extent, but tells him that, firstly, it’s incurable and secondly, if it gets much worse - it’s already the worst she has ever seen - Simon will find himself in the condition known as Nowhen, disappearing from history altogether. He will never have been born.
Can Simon’s urgent problem be solved before he fades away and is forgotten? Can the souped-up car be used for time travel? Can the pair convince Albert Einstein that they are more than a toasted-cheese-induced dream?
Read the book and find out.
Despite the humour, there are serious issues at a deeper level. Time-sickness could just as easily be a real-world fatal illness with no cure. Simon’s frustration with his father, who just won’t listen, and his deep wish to find his mother, are believable. It’s a nice idea to introduce children to the theory of relativity, and the scientist behind it, via an entertaining adventure story; hopefully, some of this book’s young readers might go off and look up the background information. And who hasn’t had trouble with school bullies at one time or another?
Recommended for children in late primary school to early secondary.