The Books I Read So You Don't Have To: D. J, McHale's Pendragon sequence.
D. J. MacHale, Pendragon: The Merchant of Death(London: Simon and Schuster, 2003 [S&S NY, 2002])
D. J. MacHale, Pendragon: The Lost City of Faar(London: Simon and Schuster, 2003 [S&S NY, 2003])
D. J. MacHale, Pendragon: The Never War(London: Simon and Schuster, 2004 [S&S NY, 2002])
forthcoming: The Reality Bug
Where to start?
Well first, I'm not too sure whether these are fantasy or sf, I'm rather giving them the benefit of the doubt because I think that the frame story structure will allow sf plots, although so far the possibility of sf-ness in The Lost City of Faar (I keep writing that "The City of Lost Fear" which I offer as a much cooler title to anyone who wants it) was restricted to the wondrous landscape of a world built on floating rafts and the ease with which they can be poisoned.
But I should explain the story.
Bobby Pendragon--high school jock, good grades, the girls all love him--is kidnapped by his Uncle Press and taken down a tunnel which transports them to another world which Bobby is supposed to help. This is the opening to all three books and will be to the endless sequels I expect. As the books go on the importance of what Bobby is doing grows and by book three we know the villain (Saint Dane) is out to destroy the universe. Bobby "an ordinary boy" is expected to stop him. Bobby, like his Uncle Press and some of the other people he meet is a Traveller.
Book 1: Bobby and Uncle Press go to Denduron where Bedoowan enslave the Milagos. Bobby helps the Milago's revolt but prevents them using the WMD supplied by Saint Dane. Loor, the Traveller girl he meets, turns from regarding him with contempt (essentially as a spoiled American brat) to seeing him as a true warrior. Loor's mother dies but she takes it calmly.
Book 2: Bobby goes to Cloral, a water world, and with the help of the Traveller boy Spader, who doesn't yet know he is a Traveller, they fail to defeat Saint Dane's plans to destroy the world and to destroy the city of Faar. Spader's father (the previous Traveller) dies. So does Uncle Press. We learn that there is only ever one Traveller at at time. When a new one appears the old one knows he is about to get it.
Book 3:Bobby and Spader are sent back to Earth 1937 (it's called First Earth, 2003 is Second Earth, they are all Territories in the battle). His mission--he eventually works out--is to make sure the Hindenberg crashes so that the money on board to pay for a spy network who are spying on the US's nuclear secrets (I had trouble with that idea--in 1937 shouldn't the spying be going the other way around) and prevent the Axis powers from bombing the US (another idea I had problems with as I'm not sure the west coast cities mentioned would have been within reach unless the Axis already controlled the Atlantic). Spader screws up, Bobby sends him home because he can't trust him. He is much harsher on Spader than Loor was on him.
That takes me to the first criticism from which all else descends: Bobby. Yuck.
Bobby is perfect. He is good at sports, bright (although McHale later backs up a bit and makes him bad at history), and to quote his girlfriend Courtney Chetwynde (of whom more in a moment):
There's something about you, Bobby. I know you're brain and a jock and popular and all, but it's more than that. You've got this, like, I don't know, this aura thing going on. People trust you. They like you. And it's not like you're trying to show off or anything. Maybe that's part of it. You don't act like you think you're better than anybody else. You're just this really good guy--" she paused before going on, then the bombshell-- "who I'e had this incredible crush on since fourth grade."
Now I just know that like me you will want to vomit, but swallow hard, because it's going to be like this all the way. Y'see, the way the book is set up, we aren't meant to identify with Bobby. I've noticed this before--as have a number of critics--that one of the differences between superhero fiction, however apparently sfnal--and sf is that while sf wants you to identify with the hero, and its heroes are often misfits--superhero fiction mostly wants you to admire the hero (don't rush to give me the exceptions, I know they exist) who is often better at all the things that society admires. This is a superhero novel, and what is it a superhero needs? An admiring (or hissing) public.
Bobby's adventures are related through journals which Bobby sends via a magic/technological ring to his old friends Courtney and Mark. Mark is the nerd. If this were an sf novel, it's Mark who would be having the interesting adventures--frankly, he is the one who has the brains for it.
We get to read the novel with Courtney and Mark. The effect, and I don't know if MacHale meant to do this, is that we identify with them, not with Bobby. Now this has mixed results. I know that the whole identification thing is a con--we identify in a story because the rhetoric draws us in, but usually it does so by positioning us an an invisible participant riding side by side with the protagonist. By reminding us every so often that we are actually sitting with Mark and Courtney we are relegated to cheering audience.
This is compounded by the fact that Mark and Courtney's adventures hiding the manuscript, discovering that Mark's family seems never to have existed (even their house is gone) are so much more interesting than the universe crashing quests of the perfect (and rather arrogant) Bobby.
And all of this is written with painful attention to emotions, lots of self-analysis and group hugs. These are very American teens in that they know the emotions they are supposed to feel, and how they are supposed to deal with them. When Bobby rejects Spader, it's with lots of therapy-speak. The thing about therapy-speak is that it is one of the most effective languages for emotional bullying I've ever come across. It allows the one person to impose an interpretation of the world upon an individual while justifying it as "you don't understand yourself". So will it surprise you to learn that the one power Travellers have (apart from Travelling) is the Jedi Mind Touch. See Karen Traviss for an interesting discussion on the ethics of the Jedi.