Monday, March 10, 2008

D. J. MacHale

The Pendragon Chronicles
by D. J. MacHale
Recommended Age: 14+

The Merchant of Death

Folks, I am without a doubt the doofus of the decade; for I bought only the first book of this series, to try it out and see if I would like it... and by the time I got around to reading it, I had so many other books (and so few dollars) lined up that buying the rest of the series was out of the question... and I can hardly wait to read them! In fact, I had a hard time concentrating at work today because I was so looking forward to finishing this book.

As young readers' fantasy stories go, it isn't built on what you could really call an original premise. If you've read a tithe of the books reviewed on the Book Trolley, or even if you've only read the Harry Potter books, by now you'll be very matey with the idea: More or less normal kid finds out that his destiny is to wield weird powers, battle great evils, and save the world whether he is ready or not. Sound familiar?

But the twist in this story is the voice of Bobby Pendragon, a 14-year-old basketball star from the New York suburb of Stony Brook, Connecticut. Most of the story is narrated by Bobby in the form of journals scribbled on rolls of parchment, which are then sent through an interdimensional gateway to his dweeby best friend, Mark. And while Mark and a girl jock named Courtney Chetwynde try to figure out what has happened to Bobby, young Pendragon finds himself in a "territory" called Denduron, on the far end of space and time, accompanied by his mysterious Uncle Press, shoved bewildered and unprepared into a battle for the peace and stability of a whole world - and countless other worlds into the bargain.

Denduron is inhabited by various tribes of humans. One of those tribes, the Milago, live in hunger, fear, and pain, viciously enslaved by the hoity-toity Bedoowan. The Bedoowan tyrant is a disgusting creature named Kagan, but the power behind the throne is a Traveler like Press and Bobby - or rather, quite unlike them. Saint Dane, as he is known throughout his many incarnations, is a terrible being who wants to unbalance the whole Halla - what Diana Wynne Jones would call "multiverse" and what Douglas Adams would call the "Whole Sort of General Mish-Mash," but which really means everything and everyone that exists, in all worlds, at all times. The mission of Press, Bobby, and the other Travelers who join them is to stop Saint Dane and bring peace to Denduron.

But it won't be easy. It isn't that Saint Dane does anything directly, but he influences people to do things - and Bobby himself makes mistakes - -that bring everything closer and closer to disaster. An attempt to free the peaceful Milago from the brutal Bedoowan turns first into a test of Bobby's bravery and cleverness, then into a terrible arms race supplied by an oily little peddler who has discovered a substance called tak that makes heap big boom-boom. And while Uncle Press desperately tries to save the people of Denduron from annihilating each other, Bobby faces Saint Dane himself.

This is a fascinating story, alternating between Bobby's hip, youthful, first-person voice and the third-person narrative on his friend Mark's end of things. It features a villain who will obviously come back in future books (I think there are 5 at this writing) and who may remind some of the "Lone Power" from Diane Duane's Young Wizards series. There is sorrow, humor, romance, horror, suspense, gripping action, and an explosive climax--plus a line that will stick in your head: "This is the way it was meant to be." I look forward to getting more books in this series for Christmas. (Strong hint to any friends & family who may be reading this.)

The Lost City of Faar

Bobby Pendragon, 14-year-old cosmic hero, was last seen plunging through a “flume” with his Uncle Press, traveling to another territory (planet? dimension? time?), leaving his nerdy best friend Mark and his jockish girlfriend Courtney to wait, wonder, and read the journals that he occasionally sends them. His parents, his sister, his dog, and their whole house had vanished into nowhere. Not much of a welcome back from his first death-defying trip to another world (reality? universe?) in The Merchant of Death, in which Bobby experienced danger, warfare, responsibility for the fate of millions, failure, triumph, the death of a friend, and an unresolved vendetta with the Evil One himself: Saint Dane.

While Mark and Courtney deal with this thrilling secret (and have their own adventures involving a blackmailing bully who finds out about everything), the adventure really belongs to Pendragon and Uncle Press. This time they have gone to the water-covered world of Cloral, where folks live on floating habitats and do all their farming, travel, recreation, and industrial work in, on, or under the water. So soon after his own rude awakening, Pendragon is the one who has to break it to another young Traveler – to explain that his whole life has been turned upside down, and he has been drafted into the ultimate battle between Good and Evil.

The other new Traveler – a cool guy named Spader – doesn’t take the news very well. It isn’t that he objects to being a traveler; but since his father, the Traveler for Cloral before him, was killed by Saint Dane, Spader has his own score to settle. And while Saint Dane sets in motion a chain of events that could plunge all of Cloral into chaos forever, it is all Bobby can do to keep Spader from rushing after their elusive enemy and getting himself killed.

Pendragon needs all the help he can get from his uncle and from his old friend Loor to help Spader make the transition. But there isn’t much time. A legendary lost city is discovered right at the point when it can make the difference between life or death for the whole territory. And Saint Dane is going to do all that lies within his considerable powers to tip the balance toward death.

This story is exciting, full of appealing characters, thrilling imagery, and knock-me-down action. Bobby’s journey from being a freaked-out kid to being the leader in the last, critical war against Saint Dane is adorned with all the charms of aquatic adventure, sci-fi nightmare, fairy-tale splendor, and classic tragedy—you know, the kind where you have to agree that “it was meant to be this way.” It even introduces a new sport that I predict will be all the rage in a few years. It all makes me look forward longingly to the date when I can afford to buy the next book in the series, titled The Never War.

The Never War

Cocky, yet down-to-earth. Hip, yet grounded. Well-liked, yet lonely. Scared out of his mind, yet known for his exceptional bravery. That’s 15-year-old Bobby Pendragon, the “Traveler” from Second Earth, who flumes from territory to territory, putting a stop to each of Saint Dane’s evil plans to throw all Halla into chaos.

If you just said “Huh?” you had better to back and read my review of The Merchant of Death. It explains everything.

Yes, this is another adventure in a series of what I am guessing may run to 10 books in all, narrated by the youthful voice of Bobby himself as he sends his journals to his devoted friends, Mark and Courtney, back in Stony Brook, Connecticut. In this adventure he isn’t far from Stony Brook – in fact, he is in Manhattan – but because the territories of Halla are separated by time as well as space, the First Earth in which Pendragon finds himself is as far from home as you could wish – sixty-years away or more – in the year 1937.

World War II is coming, only nobody knows it except Pendragon, his fellow Travelers Spader and Gunny, and of course, Saint Dane. This evil would-be conqueror of all that is or ever was or will be, has hit on a plan to destroy not one, but three territories at one blow. And this time his nastiest weapon against Bobby Pendragon is... Bobby Pendragon.

If you just said “Huh?” you had better get this book and read it. My lips are sealed.

Yes, mate, you’re in for a tum-tigger of a natty-do in this one. Hobey! Did I mention that Spader comes along on this one? He has a pretty tough time, too. But Pendragon’s job is tougher, because he not only has to fight his worst enemy, his best friend, and his own self at the same time, with the lives of everyone he loves on the line, but he also has to cope with his growing realization that everyone, including the other travelers, is looking to him for leadership! Is he ready for it? Well, no. And that could just spell doom for everyone on earth....

The Reality Bug

Suppose you’re Bobby Pendragon. Suppose you’re a fifteen-year-old, suburban basketball star whose life has been turned upside down. Your family has disappeared, your home has vanished, all trace of your existence has been erased, and you have been launched into a dangerous, deadly-serious adventure through time and space, in which the fate of ten worlds depends on stopping the evil plans of the shape-changing, demonically clever Saint Dane. Suppose you have watched some close friends die, and you have been forced to make terrible life-and-death decisions, and the only thing that keeps you going is that you are more scared of failing than of the danger you face.

And now suppose that you have followed Saint Dane to a territory called Veelox, where the streets are deserted because everybody spends all their time plugged into a virtual-reality fantasy world called Lifelight, where the only thing to eat is a machine-made substance appropriately called Gloid, and where the local Traveler – a snotty techno-dorkette named Aja Killian – tells you more or less that she’s got everything controlled, and as far as he is concerned you can get lost. What would you do?

I can think of a lot of things I would do, none of which would make it possible for me to get a job on Veelox ever, ever again. But if there is one thing heroic about Bobby Pendragon, it is the fact that he somehow manages to get Aja to tell him that she’s glad he came to Veelox. For living in a fantasy world turns out not to be the best way to cope with the real world. Who knew?

The future of Veelox is so uncertain that Saint Dane declares his victory right from the start. To be sure, it’s hard to see how the good guys can win when they are being chased by the dogs of hell, menaced by a computer virus that turns dreamland into a deadly nightmare, and forced to seek the help of a reclusive genius whose high-tech rabbit hole proves almost as dangerous as the enemy that threatens it.

Meanwhile, back on Second Earth, Pendragon’s friends Mark and Courtney are making up their minds to take a more active role in the adventure. Instead of just sitting back and reading Bobby’s journals, they want to be of some real help. Maybe they’ll get more adventure than they reckoned on...

Here is another twisted, far-out fantasy featuring one of the coolest teenage narrators of today. It sizzles with action, imagery, and the explosive presence of Loor (see The Merchant of Death). Old adventures come into sharper focus, a scent of adventures yet to come is on the air, and an ending so shocking that you had better take it sitting down combine to make this the toughest Pendragon adventure yet.

Black Water

As the Pendragon series continues, the battle of Bobby Pendragon and his fellow Travelers against the time-and-space-hopping demon, Saint Dane, grows more and more intense. I hope I’m not going to ruin The Reality Bug for you right now but...well, there’s something about knowing that Bobby Pendragon can lose, and Saint Dane can win, that “ups the ante” on the suspense. Not only does Bobby’s imperfect record of wins vs. losses mean that anything can happen, but now, in Saint Dane’s words, “the rules have changed” – most likely to Saint Dane’s advantage!

Now that I probably HAVE spoiled your enjoyment of The Reality Bug, I’m going to make it up by not telling you much about Black Water. To tell you almost anything about the story would be to rob you of some delicious surprises and startling discoveries. But I’ll tell you a few things: Bobby’s next assignment is on a territory called Eelong, where intelligent cats populate a vast forest, and the humans (a.k.a. “gars”) aren’t considered second-class citizens because that would be a step up for them. Bobby has to find a way to deal with a Traveler who isn’t even the same species as he, and one who doesn’t believe in being a Traveler at all, before Saint Dane carries out a monstrous plan of genocide that will destroy Eelong forever.

Meanwhile, back on Second Earth, Mark and Courtney have discovered that even as mere acolytes, they can travel through the Flume from territory to territory. It isn’t a smooth ride, but they have to do it in order to help Bobby stop a Saint Dane plan that he doesn’t know about. Even though they have been longing for some adventure, they definitely get more than they hoped for; and even though the fate of Eelong really depends on them, it also seems their new ability to fly the friendly Flume is part of Saint Dane’s plan to take control of Halla – everyone, everywhere, at all times.

Yes, fellow acolytes, I know this isn’t the last book in the series. I understand a sixth book called The Rivers of Zadaa is out there somewhere, and when I see it I’ll read it. [UPDATE: See the next review.] I expect there to be nine or ten books in the series all told. And based on the last couple of books, I expect the stakes to get higher, the danger greater, and the chances of Bobby Pendragon beating Saint Dane to grow slimmer with each additional book. Who wouldn’t look forward to a thrill ride like that? That is, if we can stand the tension! But like Bobby’s friends, we have to wait for his next journal to arrive.

The Rivers of Zadaa

Bobby Pendragon is growing up. As he continues to fight the war against Saint Dane over the fate of all the territories that have ever existed or will exist, Bobby and his friends back on Second Earth (“our” world) are beginning to grow apart. He is beginning to have feelings he never expected for one of his fellow Travelers, beautiful warrior Loor. And he needs to change some things about himself – and find out some things too – if he is going to continue to lead the Travelers and keep Saint Dane from sending everything spinning into chaos.

In this sixth Pendragon adventure, Bobby and Loor face a major crisis on Loor’s home territory of Zadaa. There, all civilization rests on the delicate balance between two tribes – the dark-skinned warriors who live above ground, and the pale technicians who live below ground. In the past, the two tribes were friends; but in recent years, their friendship has been strained to the point of an uneasy truce. In a mostly desertified world, the point of contention is, naturally, water. Tensions build as a drought worsens, and each side begins pointing suspicious fingers at the other, and both prepare for war.

As usual, Saint Dane has found a way to twist this situation so that one critical event could cause the whole territory to collapse. And this time, Bobby may be too distracted by the increasing demands of leadership, as well as his growing feelings for Loor, to head off Saint Dane before it's too late. That is especially so when first Bobby himself, then another Traveler are gravely injured.

Meanwhile, when the situation seems more than ever to be out of Bobby’s control, things are not going well for Mark and Courtney back on Second Earth. Courtney was plunged into a serious depression after her bravado in Black Water resulted in the death of one Traveler and the marooning of two others. Now she is doing better, but she still can’t bear to carry on her duties as a Traveler’s acolyte.

Leaving Mark on his own to cope with Bobby’s terrifying journals and the strange new role his sometime nemesis Andy Mitchell is playing in his life, Courtney goes to a preppy summer school where a new romance may mean she is beginning to “get over” Bobby Pendragon. Or it may mean that she and Mark are in more danger from Saint Dane than ever before.

Half narrated in the self-deprecating, hip-dude voice of Bobby, half told in the third person from the point of view of Bobby and Courtney, this is another tale from D. J. MacHale that takes the Pendragon saga to a new level of danger and excitement. It reveals surprising new powers, brings together old characters, conjures mental images of awesome settings and fascinating cultures, and brings good and evil head-to-head in another explosive, suspenseful confrontation.

MacHale has lost none of his flair for the dramatic as the series has gone on – even though some of his gimmicks (such as opening a chapter by hinting at something huge that happens at the end of the chapter) are becoming familiar old friends. And we readers find ourselves torn. Do we want the series to continue for many, many more books – so long as they're as readable as this one? Or do we want Bobby and his friends to triumph once and for all, and soon, before he is so changed by his adventures that he can never again “belong”?

Maybe these aren’t books for the ages, but they are smashing books for this moment right now. And they have plenty of energy to keep strung-out Harry Potter fans burning through the pages.

UPDATE: I already have the paper back of the seventh Pendragon book, The Quillan Games. Book eight, The Pilgrims of Rayne, is in bookstores now; and book nine, Raven Rise, is due to come out in May. As Spader would say, Hobey!

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