The Merchant of Death (Pendragon, #1) The Merchant of Death by D.J. MacHale

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The kids’ bookgroup that I run at the library chose this book for May, and it was suggested by a bright, articulate girl so let’s just say that expected better things from it. Would I have finished the first chapter otherwise? Probably not. Would I finished the book if it weren’t for bookgroup? Definitely not.

I think this falls into the category of big, fat fantasy series where the appeal is largely based on plot – nothing too nuanced, but action packed and with easy to read stock characters. You don’t have to think much while you read it, because everything is laid out for you – lots of telling and no showing. Key pieces of information are repeated frequently, just in case you missed them in the previous paragraph.

For example: “It was Uncle Press! He walked out of the tunnel with his long leather coat flapping against his legs. I could have hugged him. In fact, I did. I ran over to him like a little kid. If this were a movie, I’d have been running in slow motion. I threw my arms around him with the feeling of pure joy and gratitude that I wasn’t alone anymore, and that my favorite guy in the world wasn’t shot dead by that Saint Dane guy. He was safe.”

Lots of short, simple sentences with plenty of repetition of the main idea: Bobby is glad that his uncle is safe. This makes it easy to read, sure, but it’s awfully clunky and doesn’t give kids any credit for being able to pick up on Bobby’s relief themselves. What makes this even more incredible is that we’re supposed to believe that these are Bobby’s handwritten journals, sent magically back to his friends at home. Sure.

Another painful aspect of the fantasy world is the way it doesn’t seem to be thoroughly thought-out. For instance, this “territory” has three suns in “opposite corners of the sky.” These suns all rise and set at the same time. They all reach high noon at the same time. There is no explanation for how this is physically possible. Do they revolve around the planet, instead of the planet moving around the suns? Who knows! Also, travel through time and space is conveniently dealt with using the explanation that Travelers arrive whenever they need to arrive. However, this doesn’t stop Uncle Press from whisking Bobby away from his normal life at a moment’s notice. If they arrive when they’re meant to arrive, couldn’t they take their time?

You might be asking, why did I give this book a whole two stars. Good question. The plot actually holds together for the most part. It’s simplistic, the characters are pretty flat, and something is lacking in the style, but it actually manages to keep up the pace and reach a conclusion. And the bookgroup kids liked it, although they’re always pretty generous with their ratings (although I was very proud of the kid who, after our discussion where I brought up the suns thing, said he took a point off because of issues like that).

Source: public library

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Last month there was an interesting discussion about faking nice in blog reviews – which I didn’t quite buy, because I don’t say nice things unless I mean them, but I could see both sides of the argument.  Most reviews in blogland are fairly positive, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to blast the author personally even if you hate the book.

But there’s something so fun and cathartic about a negative review.  They’re so easy to write and it gets that bad experience out of your system.   Plus, I think it’s appropriate to warn other readers against a book, especially if you back up your opinion and don’t just say “I hated it!”   And I’d kind of like to see more negative reviews.  It seems like a lot of blog reviewers choose to not write reviews of books they didn’t like – not that people are faking nice, they’re just avoiding negativity.  If that works for you, great, but I don’t think anyone should hesitate about being critical.

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