Alcatraz vs the Evil Librarians
Series by Brandon Sanderson
Alcatraz Smedry was just a typical teenager with an attitude problem and a frustrating tendency to break things. Now he’s been reunited with the family he never knew he had, discovered magical talents, and journeyed to far off countries. He’s also nearly been killed by Librarians, come within seconds of losing his soul, and held a conversation with dinosaurs, which isn’t nearly as much fun as you might think.
The Alcatraz series (four books, with a fifth on semi-permanent hiatus, pending a contract from Scholastic) is what Brandon Sanderson does on his time off from writing sprawling high fantasy, and the differences are obvious. First person, fast moving, focused more on humour than anything else, and far more bizarre. To put that last bit in context, one of Sanderson’s earlier books, ‘Warbreaker’, had a magic system that revolved around colour and breathing.
All the books are written in a similar vein to that of George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ series, or the ‘Ciaphas Cain’ entries in the Warhammer 40K universe; Alcatraz is writing, as an adult, the ‘true story’ of what his teenage years were like, to prove to the world once and for all that he isn’t the hero he is widely regarded as.
It’s a great premise, whatever the series, but a tricky one to pull off successfully, and this is the biggest problem with the books. The trick is to create a character who is roguish enough to keep the reader invested in the book, but still convince as a coward (or whatever form the character’s real personality takes, of course). Sanderson doesn’t tread that line – because he plays it too safe. Alcatraz can be irritating at times, but for most of the four books the only real criticism you could lay at his feet is that he is a thirteen year old boy with no idea what is going on for much of the time. As such, he is neither engagingly un-heroic nor interesting enough to hold attention as a more straightforward protagonist.
There are other problems. By contrast to Sanderson’s epic fantasy novels, the world of the Hushlands (places like America, the UK, Europe…all the places run by the Librarian conspiracy) and the Free Kingdoms (fantasy lands free of Librarian influence) is rather thin. It is not that there isn’t plenty of detail; across the four books there are a whole myriad of different little snippets that create hints of a richer world. They just don’t really add up to a coherent whole. The world building there is can often be a little too wacky to really convince. There’s a section in the fourth book that revolves around a selection of Free Kingdom weaponry…that takes the form of differently coloured teddy bears. While the Free Kingdoms are an odd place, it’s a detail that seems to come more from the fact that the series is a young adult humorous fantasy than anything else. Similarly, the Talent system – one of the two methods of magic in the books – often feels forced, and some of them feel as if they’ve been created to serve the plot, rather than the other way round.
There’s still a lot to like though. It’s a rare book, fantasy or otherwise, where the narrator stops the action to have a brief discussion about the nature of writing, and the later books can get intriguingly meta, a trend also seen in some nice little twists on classic fantasy tropes. While self-consciously bizarre, there’s no denying that some of the magic is incredibly awesome, and in keeping with his more famous works, Sanderson shows a flair for writing exciting adventures. It might not make much sense, but there’s a lot to see. While Alcatraz himself is a frustrating character, the supporting cast are more memorable and entertaining, particularly Grandpa Smedry, the mildly crazy old man who fills the role of wizardly mentor. And although these are probably Sanderson’s worst books, he’s still a damn good writer.
On an individual basis, the second book is probably the best. Featuring probably the most interesting plot and setting – the haunted and lost Library of Alexandria – it manages to get past all the flaws mentioned above while combining all the positives. The worst is the fourth, which seems to get waylaid by meta-fictional discussion at the expense of the plot and, worst of all, ends at a downright evil point (as stated at the start, Scholastic haven’t contracted Sanderson to write a fifth and final entry in the series at this stage; make of that what you will).