Sunday, May 18, 2008

When magic misses the mark

I recently picked up The Alchemyst at Central. It piqued my curiosity because it was all about Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle, who made an off-stage appearance in the first Harry Potter book. I had no idea they were real people or even established mythological figures, so I checked out the book partially to find out which.

My disappointment is probably evident from the title of the post. The story centers around teenaged twins Sophie and Josh Newman, who get sucked into the centuries-old battle between the Flamels and a man named John Dee. Josh works for Nick and Perry (as they've styled themselves in the 21st century) at the bookstore they own; Sophie works at the coffee shop across the street. The battle (briefly) is over control of the Codex of Abraham the Mage, which is a copper-bound book that is part instructional and part prophetic. The Witch of Endor, Bastet, Heckate and the Morrigan all have their roles to play in the tale, as do some less familiar figures, such as the mythological female warrior Scathach.

By all rights, it should've been a compelling tale, but it just didn't have that X-factor. I finished it while I was riding home from a wedding across the state, so I've had plenty of time to ruminate on its shortcomings, and I think it lies with the characters. The Harry Potter books can trace much of their success to its character development. True, there are a few cardboard cutouts in there, but at least they're archetypes. You look at Draco Malfoy and you see the snotty rich kids who used to make fun of your Payless sneakers. You see in Fred and George the class clown that you would've had somewhat of a crush on but could never quite take seriously. Cho Chang was the one you desired without really even knowing anything about. But you just can't warm up to Josh and Sophie, or even to Nick, Perry, Scathach or the others, in any way, shape or form.

The book teems with emotions, but they're shown, not described. You know Josh is hurt and angry because the text says "Josh felt hurt and angry," when showing him slamming the door or kicking a pebble would've conveyed the message. The twins are so passive it's hard to feel anything for them. They get caught up in the saga and continue to essentially do as they're told without questioning it. They're so slow to cotton on to some things that it angers the reader (quick, tell me what you think of an island known as Danu Talis that sunk beneath the ocean in ancient times? ever hear a story like that anywhere else bfore?). You get a bit bored waiting for them to play catch-up, and you've read enough similar books to know how it will all turn out anyway.

Actually, there was one surprise waiting for me at the end. It turns out that the author intends to make this a franchise, and apparently has part of the next book already written. No doubt, the author is seeing dollar signs and a movie deal in his future. Whenever anything new becomes popular, it always spawns a variety of imitators. Nirvana and Pearl Jam had their Candlebox and Stone Temple Pilots, and so the renewed interest in J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the success of J.K Rowling and Phillip Pullman have spawned much new work in the fantasy genre. But if you're in search of the next Harry Potter, you can cross The Alchemyst off your list of hopefuls.