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07 June 2006 @ 07:52 pm
Pendragon (Books One and Two) – D.J. MacHale  
Title: Pendragon: The Merchant of Death and The Lost City of Faar
Author: D.J. MacHale
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
(Note: The review got a little bit ranty and has some mild spoilers, but nothing too specific.)

Summary: Bobby Pendragon is a 14-year-old who's got it all going on. He's smart, he's athletic, he's popular, and he has a bizarre rich uncle, Press, who spoils him with adventure vacations. But everything changes when Press reveals to him that he's not just a normal, if superbly talented, kid; he's actually a Traveler, who has the ability to take doorways through time and space and end up on other worlds. Every world has a tipping point where either chaos or order will take over; the Travelers work to ensure order, but the series villain, Saint Dane, is trying to create chaos. In the first book, Bobby travels to an undeveloped world where warring tribes are about to discover destructive technology for the first time; in the second, to an all-water semi-paradise where Saint Dane is trying to destroy their heritage and create a war.

Review: I wasn't that impressed by these two books. I love YA novels, and a friend suggested them, as they're apparently pretty freaking popular, and I do think I'd have liked them a lot more when I was actually part of the YA target audience. Reading them as an adult, however, I discovered a few weaknesses I had a hard time getting past.

The first problem I had was with Bobby himself. Like a lot of fantasy protagonists, it's necessary for him to be super special, but unlike most, it's never really explained why. So Bobby is special to the point of irritating. When he's an average highschooler, he's the school's star basketball player, a straight A student, cute, popular, about to hook up with the coolest girl in school, and yet still close with his geeky best friend from middle school, because he doesn't care about cliques. Once he becomes a Traveler, the high school portion is eliminated, but he's still super special and we don't know why, and he ultimately is the one who comes up with a plan which seems like it's going to go terribly awry, but he saves it at last moment and fixes everything. While he's no longer comparatively strong and athletic, he more than makes up for it by doing what's right, all the time. And in his decision to do what's right, he's pretty freaking whiny, a la Luke Skywalker. So clearly, as protagonists go, Bobby didn't do it for me.

Second was the fact that there were little bits and pieces that made it feel like the author didn't quite know what was going on, but needed something to happen for the sake of convenience. The motorcycle that Bobby and Press abandon in the Bronx is gone when his friends look for it, but mysteriously returns when he needs it later; clothes for every new habitat are provided. All of this is thanks to mysterious acolytes, who are never seen, or explained. Bobby's family and house disappear, and we never are told why or where they go, except that they'll return someday. Even his pet dog. And again, while this could turn out to make perfect sense a few books down the line, it just feels like sloppy writing; like the writer didn't know what to do with them, but needed them out of the way, so he wrote them off for awhile.

Finally, my big problem with the books is the odd-to-sexist portrayal of female characters. I'm in favor of strong female characters, and I'd say so is MacHale, but the way he presents them really rubs me the wrong way. The only two of serious importance in the series thus far are Courtney, Bobby's potential love interest from home, and Loor, a fellow Traveler from a different world. They're cut from the same mold: physically strong, highly athletic tom boys; gorgeous in their own, imposing, could-snap-you-like-a-twig way; the muscle of the group, and pointedly not the brains. Courtney, for example, is so strong and athletic that she's taken out of the girls' gym class and put into the boys' class, where she still dominates… Because we all know, boys are better athletes than girls, so if you're enough of a tom boy, that makes you basically a man. Except, wait, no; and also, a school that had gender-separated gym classes likely wouldn't single someone out to change the rule.

And, more importantly, why are neither of these girls particularly smart? Bobby's geeky friend notes at one point that Courtney is more optimistic about Bobby's predicament than he is, because she hasn't thought it through, because… she's not a thinker. She does eventually do something clever at the very end of book two, but that's only when her usual intimidation routine has failed. Loor, however, is very much a soldier who takes orders and doesn't stop to think. She spends most of the first book with no respect for Bobby, because he's not a warrior and not as strong as she is. Eventually, he saves her life and she accepts him. (And, notably, the tough soldier girl is suddenly the damsel in distress—she's knocked out, and she can't swim in general, so though she'd be the brawn in a brain and brawn duo, which I could live with, she ends up as neither and just kind of useless and there for Bobby to save.) She reacts without thinking all through the first book, and then in the second book, she's randomly written out and the role of Bobby's fellow Traveler is filled by a guy.

Now, neither of these would be such a big deal if there were a variety of other female characters. But there's not. I can think of three off the top of my head; one is a minor character, one of the natives of the world in book two. The other two are Loor's mother and a villain. Loor's mother is a warrior as well, but a more mature, thoughtful one, who almost immediately sacrifices herself for Bobby, and that's all we get of that. The other is one of the book one villains… A three hundred pound, possibly mentally retarded girl, who is the object of manipulation by the villain. Lovely.

In a nutshell, I think that with Courtney and Loor, MacHale is trying to present strong, likable female characters, and thus wouldn't really have to worry about having a variety of other women in the series. However, the strengths he gives both of them are not only cliché, they're also very traditionally masculine, and I don't think that the message, in as much as there is one, should be that to be strong, a woman has to be as much like a man as possible.

Ooookay. That got a bit ranty; I thought I'd been pretty indifferent to, if mildly irritated by, the two books, but it turns out I disliked them more than I thought. On the positive side, they're entertaining, easy reads. As stated, I do think I'd have enjoyed them more when I was twelve, before I learned how to spot and analyze trends in reading. Thanks, liberal arts education! Overall, though, if you're looking for genuinely good YA fantasy, I'd just stick with Harry Potter.
Current Mood: aggravatedaggravated
(Anonymous) on November 21st, 2007 08:01 pm (UTC)
why this book sucks
this book sucks