The afterword of the previous Oz book stated that L. Frank Baum had finally gotten his act together and fully intended on making a whole franchise of Oz. Since they had been, weirdly enough, gradually getting better, I had a vague sense of hope. Let’s see what the fourth book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, has in store for us.
In this installment, Dorothy visits California to see some other uncle of hers. However, she, her cat Eureka, and some kid named Zebediah (and his horse, Jim) get caught up in an earthquake. Said earthquake sends them falling straight to hell, which in Baum’s mind is apparently a glass city inhabited by vegetable people called Mangaboos.
Starting out, Wizard in Oz is actually not too bad. The setting is relatively creative, for starters. Plant people aren’t a remotely new concept, but it’s done so literally that it gives these plant people a complete disregard toward death; after all, you can just plant a new version of that person.
To be honest, most of the book stays enjoyable. There’s no jarring smooth-brain plays nor outstanding cases of sexism and the like. Unfortunately, it still has Oz’s ongoing problem of having nonsense worldbuilding. While the setpieces are certainly imaginative, especially for the time, I don’t feel immersed or engaged in any of it. Sadly, I have a feeling that this issue will not be resolved, since Tolkein is the one credited for making the first believable fantasy world, and that wouldn’t be for forty-odd more years.
Bizarrely enough, the characters are a bit more tolerable, and by “characters” I mean “the Wizard and literally no one else.” For some reason, it was weirdly cathartic to see him swoop in on his balloon, seeing him for the first time since the original classic. He’s quite the resourceful fellow, full of all kinds of tricks, and he comes off as more of a badass this time around.
Of course, no Oz book can be flawless, and this one falls apart at the end. After their adventures in Baum’s version of hell, we see the first instance of some new plot armor: Ozma’s magic belt, which warps them out of danger and into Oz. And when they regroup, the book basically pads itself out. Baum throws together a contrived climax, which basically plays out like one of those Ace Attorney trial days where you spend ninety minutes figuring out something that the witness already knew the whole time.
Lastly… Well, actually, it’s something about all the Oz books I’ve been hesitant to put out since it’s a referral to someone who might be still alive. The afterwords for these reprints of the Oz books have all been written by a Peter Glassman (whoever he is), with retrospective commentary on the corresponding book. And going off these, he seems like… kind of a Baum elitist. I first got pissed at him in the afterword for Ozma of Oz, when he referred to TikTok as literature’s first robot. That is wrong, for Frankenstein’s monster is literature’s first robot (thanks, Asimov). For Wizard in Oz, he starts by listing off the setpieces and acts like they are one-of-a-kind and could never be reimagined by someone else. How hero-worship-y must someone be to claim something like that, when you can’t possibly take into account the thousands of media that exist out there? Surely one of them must have something similar. In fact, the Koroks from Zelda are similar enough to the Mangaboos, the only difference being that they’re better (Oooooh snap!). The most elitist line yet is at the end of the afterword. During their recap of Ozma’s origin story, Baum—either by accident or design—retcons the story; he changes key points of it and acts like nothing changed whatsoever. And Glassman, well, he praises Baum for being inconsistent. It’s one of those go-to defenses against any sort of criticism: “You just don’t understand the genius at work!”
Final Verdict: 6.98/10
For all intents and purposes, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz is the best Oz book yet, and should be rated a 7. However, most of my enjoyment of the Oz books has been ripping into insignificant details as well as Baum’s unintentional power moves, such as Ozma’s gender-fluidity. And as such, I didn’t enjoy this one so much because it wasn’t “wrong” enough. To be honest, I can’t believe I made it this far. Let’s see how much longer I can go.
We all know time travel is iffy. It’s especially iffy in literature, since it’s something that could get needlessly convoluted very quickly. Despite all that, I looked at Liesl Shurtliff’s Time Castaways book series and thought: “This actually looks good.” Let’s see (and hope) if I was right.
In Time Castaways, three siblings by the names of Matt, Ruby, and Corey Hudson, take the subway to school and end up on the Vermillion, a time machine. Yeah, I don’t get it either. They join the crew, led by Captain Vincent, for literal shits and giggles, and they go on various time missions through time-space.
This story sounds like one of those “edutainment” series, where the whole point is showing how much random historical trivia the author knows. Fortunately, about halfway into the first book, things escalate rather quickly. The established rules regarding time travel are quite simple, and it never goes to complete and utter BS territory, even towards the end where things would normally get out of hand.
And, well, that’s because the plot is extremely simple. Time Castaways more-or-less follows all the usual clichés of the time travel subgenre. Even the biggest revelation, shown at the end of book two, is incredibly obvious from the start. If you have experience with this kind of stuff, it’ll likely feel very cringe-worthy.
What makes Time Castaways stand out, however, is the power of family. Normally, the parents are like “Time travel? You kids need to go to the place with the nice guys in white suits for a while!” and the mom steals some MacGuffin from the main protagonist as punishment for sneaking out of the house so often. But here, the whole family ends up deeply involved in all the mumbo-jumbo, earning their spots as plot-relevant supporting protagonists.
The second book, unfortunately, suffers the same curse that most midpoints in trilogies have. It’s more-or-less a wild goose chase. It introduces the main MacGuffin of the trilogy, sure. But other than that, there aren’t any real developments until the climax.
Fortunately, unlike many-a YA novel, the final book is insane. It’s slow at first, but things go absolutely off the rails as everything comes together. If you find yourself emotionally invested in the cast, your heart will break into a million pieces at many points in the final book.
However, becoming emotionally invested in the cast is quite difficult. Matt’s only real trait is that he has seizures, and being adopted. His level of suffering is about on par with Okabe in Steins;Gate. But unlike Okabe, who has a whacky personality, Matt is… a kid. RELATABLE (*sarcasm*).
His siblings aren’t much better; in fact, they’re arguably worse. Ruby pretty much exists for an unfunny meme where she arbitrarily gets tossed around by the Vermillion, and that’s pretty much it. Corey, meanwhile, is a turd. He’s both the comic relief, and the “always jumps to conclusions” guy. Pretty much every rift in any relationship in the trilogy has him involved, and it’s annoying.
I think boringness runs in the family, because I didn’t particularly care for ANY of the Hudsons. They’re, well, family, I guess. As cool as it is to have the family be important, the characters themselves aren’t really that fun. I dunno, I’m probably spoiled by the utter god-tier level of Spy X Family’s wholesomeness.
Wow, half of this review is the cast! In addition to the Hudsons, we have the crew of the Vermillion. The only one who matters is Jia. She’s the waifu. It’s not even a spoiler that she turns Matt from a boy into a man. That’s about it. Brocco and Wiley are pretty much there. Albert exists to be an utter ass. His motive is supposed to be that he’s a British kid from the late 1770’s, who would naturally hate Americans, but that never comes up again in his character arc. Lastly, there’s Pike, who’s basically a wild card that they tease as someone super mysterious, but she’s more-or-less forgettable.
Finally, we have the main antagonist, epically named “Vincent.” Okay, so technically, saying he’s the villain is a spoiler for book one, but it’s extremely obvious that he’s the villain (he has a pet rat for one thing). He’s not a well-written antagonist. He’s one-dimensionally evil, with no strings attached. His motive for everything is literally him being jealous of someone else dating the same girl that he liked; what a brat! I’m not like those who think that EVERY villain MUST be complex and layered, but I like some fun personality to make up for it, and Vincent has none of that.
Final Verdict (Whole Series): 8.5/10
Time Castaways is great. It sucks that it’s not that popular, since it’s so much better than what actually IS popular. The books have flaws, but they’re very fun, emotional, and full of family wuv. I recommend it to anyone who likes time travel and actually wants to see it done well.
The Oz series has been an absolute acid trip thus far. Book two, The Marvelous Land of Oz, had a startling number of ups and downs, along with all the usual controversies of the time period. However, despite me insulting L. Frank Baum’s intelligence numerous times in my previous two reviews, he wrote a gender-fluid character: Princess Ozma, a girl who had been identified as a boy until magically sex changing back into a girl. So yeah, considering what Baum did to Feminism with the Army of Revolt last time, I can’t wait to see how much he offends a people that he didn’t even know about in book three: Ozma of Oz!
In Ozma of Oz, we reunite with Dorothy, who’s sailing to Australia with her Uncle Henry. After yet another cyclone, she (and a yellow hen) end up in the Land of Ev. It’s like Oz, but… worse I guess? Anyway, she has adventures and eventually meets Ozma.
First, I must once again point out the author’s note in the beginning. Like the previous book, Ozma of Oz was written because of fan mail. However, he wasn’t just compelled to write this book, but actually followed suggestions from said fan mail. It’s almost like a precursor to the Drawfee Show on YouTube, but at the same time, it’s like that guy in Bakuman who tried to write a manga with fan suggestions (and if you read Bakuman, you know how well that turned out).
Fortunately, the novel starts with what I think is the most hilarious development yet. The first monsters Dorothy and the hen encounter are these humans with wheels in place of their hands and feet. And they’re called… the Wheelers. I don’t know anything about Yu-Gi-Oh outside of Drawfee (and other horror stories I heard about the actual card game’s system being BS), but I at least know a character was localized with the name Joey Wheeler, and had a New England accent in the dub. As such, I imagined Dorothy being chased by an army of Joey Wheelers with wheel appendages, and it was quite a laugh.
Baum also makes another unintended prophecy. Forget Orson Scott Card and Philip K. Dick; Baum was the first to predict social media, in the form of a robot named… Tiktok. Yes, spelled that exact same way. Tiktok.
Baum once again had the opportunity to go further, with the potential to beat Isaac Asimov to the punch. But alas, he drops the ball pretty much the instant Tiktok is introduced. It is explicitly and repeatedly stated that Tiktok isn’t alive, despite the fact that he literally has a setting dedicated to thought. As someone who’s seen the Data episode of Star Trek Next Generation, I groaned at this cop-out. I mean c’mon! I’m pretty sure the phrase “I think, therefore I am” was at least established at the time! It seems someone hasn’t learned from Jack Pumpkinhead in the previous book.
But wait, there’s more! Baum screws up again thanks to the aforementioned pee-colored poultry. The Ozma reveal was brilliant, but the yellow hen ruins it. The hen is a female, and is named Bill. While that in itself is still cool, Dorothy is disgusted by the concept and insists on calling the hen Billina. Why does Baum do this?! If he was just as uncomfortable with breaking gender conventions as anyone else in the 1900’s, then why did he have the Ozma thing in the first place?! This also applies to the sexism issue from the previous book. After I made that post, I remembered that he also had Dorothy kill the Wicked Witch of the West herself in the first book; a real act of Feminism, yet he quashes it in the sequel! I know that most old books are sexist, racist, etc., but at the least they’re consistent.
At least Baum managed to predict one thing properly: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The main antagonist of the novel is the Nome King, who turned the royal family of Ev into antiques since the old king literally pawned them off to him. While the Nomes are arguably a precursor to the dwarves from a novel that wouldn’t be published until forty-three years later, they are most definitely a precursor to the Grinch. The illustrations show them as green fuzzy humanoids; just like the Grinch! I’ll also admit that the Nome Kingdom is the most creative setting yet… is what I would say if we got to see it for more than five minutes. OH! At the very least, Baum predicted Gundam with the giant robot guarding the entrance!
Here we go… the cast, who are about as awful as ever. If you couldn’t tell from the Billina thing earlier, I officially hate Dorothy now (not like I enjoyed her before). Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion come back, but they are pretty much unchanged. Tiktok is also a pile of crap. He’s not just unutilized potential, as discussed before, but he’s about as inconsistent as Baum’s policy towards Feminism. Tiktok says that he cannot harm anything, but ends up doing most of the fighting throughout the novel. YOU HAD ONE JOB, BAUM.
Fortunately, we have a silver lining. Billina is a pretty decent character, despite caving in to Dorothy changing her name. She’s sarcastic, and lays eggs whenever she darn well feels like it. Additionally, the Nome King ends up being the most interesting antagonist yet, mainly because he’s NOT one-dimensionally evil like a Saturday morning cartoon villain. He’s honest and reasonable, but is also a bit sadistic, given the challenge he gives Dorothy and Co. to save the Evs. Unfortunately, Baum drops the ball by making him 180 into a Saturday morning cartoon villain during the climax. At least he’s learning?
Final Verdict: 6.95/10
Just a little more, and I’ll rate an Oz book at a seven or above (unless they start to degrade from here)! Ozma of Oz was a lot more creative than previous volumes, even if it still pales in comparison to some modern stuff (and Tolkien). It looks like I’m in it for the long haul for sure. Wish me luck (I’m gonna need it)!
I didn’t like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but I was curious about its future installments. However, when I opened up the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, I was immediately presented with an author’s note, straight from L. Frank Baum himself. To paraphrase, it said that he was compelled to write a sequel at the behest of his fans.
This further cements my original point with the first book. Similar to modern bad isekai, the writing was bare-bones, the characters were brain-dead and inconsistent, and the world lacked any semblance of rhyme or reason. And the cherry on top… he’s making it up as he goes along! Well, as someone who loves battle shounen, I can’t immediately rule out the possibility that Marvelous Land could be enjoyable. So without further ado, let’s begin!
In The Marvelous Land of Oz, a boy from the northern parts named Tip has a crap life. He’s stuck slaving away for Mombi, an annoying old coot that nobody likes. As a prank, Tip creates a vaguely humanoid figure with a jack-o’-lantern for a head (creatively named Jack Pumpkinhead by the way). Mombi uses this Powder of Life she (illegally) bought and brings Jack to life, after which Tip grabs him and they haul ass to the Emerald City.
Right off the bat, most of the issues from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are present here. The story is, once again, incredibly haphazard, with every action feeling incredibly arbitrary. In fact, Tip and Jack don’t even know why they want to go to the Emerald City in the first place.
I can at least appreciate the gumption that Baum had at the time. The creation of Jack, followed by the eventual creation of the saw-horse (a log with a horse-shaped head) is a pretty direct defiance of God. Frankenstein, which was a hip new novel at the time, did the same thing. But since this was a kids series, what Baum did was much more controversial. And while Frankenstein is supposed to be a social commentary on how humans shouldn’t play God, Baum doesn’t even remotely make any ethical quandary out of Jack and the saw-horse. Of course, now that every other fantasy world has an evil religious cult, the ballsiness of Baum’s efforts are kind of… non-existent by modern standards.
But you know what, there was something else about Marvelous Land that can be considered pretty groundbreaking. The main conflict of this novel ends up being the Army of Revolt, who usurp Scarecrow from his throne at Emerald City. The big humdinger about this is that the Army of Revolt are all women, tired of sexism. Unfortunately, like before, this is another case of an already-existing novel for older audiences conveying themes better. Feminism was already a thing thanks to Jane Eyre (thank you, Friends episode, for teaching me that without me having to read it).
Also, Feminism is presented poorly in this novel. First off, the Army of Revolt is incredibly stereotypical. Their primary motivation for storming Emerald City is to use its tax money on clothes and jewelry. Plus, their weapons consist entirely of knitting needles, which can definitely hurt, but are still very “womanly”. Furthermore, the reader isn’t allowed any form of interpretation or moral ambiguity when it comes to the Army of Revolt; they’re antagonists, which means they’re evil.
One of my biggest issues with Marvelous Land in particular is one scene that, honestly, makes me question whether or not Baum ever received an education. Tip and Co. obtain a magic item, and the conditions to activate it require them to count to seventeen in increments of two. Since seventeen is an odd number, this seems impossible. One logical solution is to count by halves in increments of two, thus counting in increments of one whole number as a result, which sounds like the solution that actually gets proposed. However, they count to .5, then to one, then just count in increments of two from there. I reread their explanation for how that’s supposed to have worked at least five times and I legitimately did not get that logic. Does the magical item round to the nearest whole number when decimals are worked in? If you’re a calculus major or something, then please comment as to how that’s supposed to work.
Fortunately, this novel has a far better sense of humor than the previous novel… I think? The thing about media from decades’ past is that we modern people find things funny that weren’t at all intended to be funny. One line of dialogue I actually chuckled at was them encountering some asshole, and Jack casually commenting “What a nice guy!” It was funny because I had no idea if it was actually supposed to be sarcasm or not (since Jack was just born). Also, someone needs to make an Oz tier list fast. In the previous book, we learned that winged monkeys are SSS-tier, even more so than any of the Witches of the Cardinal Directions. In Marvelous Land, we learn that twelve mice are more powerful than professionally trained military personnel. Again, I have no idea if it was meant to be funny or if Baum was off his rocker (since the whole story was improvised).
The characters are also much better… to a point. Jack would be an interesting “robot” character, but he’s pretty much sworn absolute loyalty to Tip; add breasts and he’d be no different from your typical objectified waifu. Since he considers Tip his father, it’s probably a consequence of that fact that dad was the end-all-be-all alpha-and-omega of the household at the time. Sadly, that’s about it for the cast. Tip and Mombi aren’t too interesting, and Jinjur—the leader of the Army of Revolt—is too contradictory for her ilk.
However, there is a potential silver lining. Of all the returning Oz characters, the most interesting ends up being Glinda the “Good.” Notice the quotation marks? Since she’s Miss Helps Everyone, Tip and Co. end up asking for assistance to deal with the Army of Revolt. Bizarrely enough, violence is her first solution every step of the way, despite how good she’s supposed to be. This could be setting up for a very complex character later on (since she’s the star of that ominous-looking final book and all). Unfortunately, I could be reading too deeply into this. After all, this was the time when extremism in Christianity was more prevalent, and it was understood that any heinous crime is justified as long as the victim is “evil.”
One of the biggest redeeming factors comes at the end. Of all the gutsy things Baum tried thus far, the big reveal in Marvelous Land is legitimately huge, putting the book about a century ahead of its time. In fact, I don’t even think Baum himself knew how significant it would be when he was writing it!
The Marvelous Land of Oz isn’t great, but it’s better than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (also, the illustrations are no longer superimposed over text). It at least gives me hope that the series will gradually get more and more trippy (and better) moving forward. Here’s hoping that I’m not wasting my time!
American history can be one of the most boring subjects in school. If only there was a more fun way to learn about it, specifically about America in the late 19th Century. While not ENTIRELY accurate, Christopher Healy’s A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem series is perhaps one of the best historical fictions ever.
A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem stars Molly and Cassandra Pepper; a rare daughter and mother pair (respectively). Cassandra’s aspiring to be an inventor, and submit a machine to the 1883 World’s Fair. But you know, sexism, so… she’s SOL. When she and Molly break into the venue to sabotage a competitor’s machine, they discover a Dastardly Plot (book 1 title drop) to take over the world!
The story is incredibly simple. A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem is more-or-less an episodic trilogy where Molly and Co. go on adventures to stop the Saturday morning cartoon villain. There’s no real depth, but unlike those cerebral critics, I’m fine with that. Children’s media has evolved to where people aren’t afraid to expose them to horrific things, from sexual assault to racism to PTSD to the Holocaust, etc. But seriously, sometimes we just need to be entertained, especially since this generation is being exposed to social media, allowing news networks to beat all the despair in the world into their innocent little skulls.
What brings this series to life is the amazing writing. The descriptions are vivid, and it’s so freaking funny. I don’t think I’ve ever LOL’d so consistently in a kids’ book series ever in my life! The pacing is also lightning quick, with sequences that would normally mark the end of an installment happening less than halfway through instead. Most importantly, the humor is absolutely on fire. But if you don’t like sarcastic comments, you might not enjoy this one.
The characters are also some of the best I’ve seen in Western fiction. Molly and Cassandra have great chemistry together, instead of the mom normally holding the kid back. The male lead is Emmet Lee, and since this is an inventor-themed series, I had to picture him as my boy Senku from Dr. Stone. Healy could’ve made real torture porn out of him, because he’s a Chinese-American living in a country that would ban Chinese immigrants at that point in history, but thankfully he didn’t. The biggest issue with the cast overall is that they sort of have the same delivery when it comes to comedy, despite all being different people…
…Well, except for my favorite character, Robot. Due to story events, an automaton made by Bell ends up gaining sentience, and Molly adopts it and names it Robot. He delivers some of the best lines in the entire series, in that robotic deadpan manner. And by the way, I can’t actually discuss the main antagonist, since they’re identity is a spoiler for book one. Just know that they’re the silly, mad-scientist-type villain.
If there are any real issues, it’s that there are snippets of that Disney-movie-trope of character-drama-that-you-know-will-inevitably-resolve-itself-because-it’s-too-light-hearted-to-not-do-so. Every instance is very short-lived, making it feel like the author put them in as a formality. Regardless, as the reader, you can choose to blitz through that crap and get back to the good stuff in a jiffy. There’s also kind of a bad case of virtue signaling, specifically with Feminism. I wouldn’t normally bring it up, but the difference here is that the story is good enough to not need to rely on the “Secret Club of Empowered Female Historical Figures.”
Final Verdict: 9.45/10
I know that this is a really short review given that I covered an entire trilogy of books, but like I said before, A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem is a clear-cut, silly little ride. It’s absolutely fantastic (and most importantly, not pretentious… for the most part), and I loved it to the bitter end. I recommend it if you are uncultured enough to want to have fun.
I don’t know what compelled me to do this. Isekai is one of my favorite genres (even though 99% of them are ass), so it only made sense for me to read a classic isekai: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I recall watching the movie in a film class. All I remember is that Judy Garland is adorable, and that the movie itself is incredibly lackluster with the exception of the [aged] technical effects. The books (yes, books. There are fourteen Oz books actually) are sure to have much more substance, right? After all; the book is better than the film.
In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a girl named Dorothy is just chilling at her rinky-dink home in Kansas when a CYCLONE LIFTS HER HOUSE. She is abnormally calm during the situation and falls asleep while still in the eye of the storm. Dorothy (with dog, Toto) wakes up in Oz, where she is praised for having murdered the Wicked Witch of the East with her house. In order to get home, she must find the titular Wizard of Oz.
Thanks to this, I finally know where most modern Japanese isekai get their lack of depth. The writing in this book is as archaic as the time period. We get the bare minimum description of anything, and no sense of scale for any architecture in this world (also, get used to some unexpected usage of the word “queer”). There is next to no worldbuilding; stuff is just there for the sake of being there. Also, Dorothy has plot armor out of her ass thanks to a kiss from the Witch of the North. It’s sad that a lot of literature has not evolved since the turn of the 20th Century.
At the very least, the book has momentum. It doesn’t waste any words, and scenes that would normally take ten years to read in a modern isekai can be completed in minutes. The Witch of the North would be an exposition dump character, but thankfully, she only tells Dorothy what’s actually RELEVANT to the plot at the current moment.
Unfortunately, the original source novel wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be. Normally, I don’t really care for super cynical stuff, but given the time period, I figured that the story would be really dark. But other than a few isolated scenes, such as the Tin Woodman’s backstory, it’s just about as lackadaisical as the movie. Oh, and in case you’re a fan of the movie, literally NONE of the famous lines are in the original. No “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” no “Lions and tigers and bears”; not even the cultic chant that the Witch of the West’s guards use when patrolling.
Furthermore, I did not like the cast of the book at all (surprise, surprise). They were not just boring but inconsistent. The worst of them is the Tin Woodman, who acts like he can’t kill anything but doesn’t hesitate to create an admittedly gorey mound of wolf corpses. And before you argue “Um people were super religious then and they didn’t really think animals have souls because God gave man dominion over animal”, just keep in mind that Mr. Woodman cries when accidentally stepping on a beetle. A beetle.
And holy heck, this is apparently where the “real treasure was the friends we made along the way” trope came from, because these characters are about as brainless as the Scarecrow. They all want these specific traits, but they end up already possessing said traits. Normally, this would be meant for an epiphany at the end, but it doesn’t turn out that way (it’s actually kind of weird what happens). I feel like Baum didn’t put any more thought into this than a typical crappy Japanese isekai author.
Another issue lies not just in the content of the story, but the publication. I got the 100th Anniversary edition, with gold pages, which made me think “This should be really well presented.” Wrong! This edition displays a large assortment of… uh… illustrations, but their placement is all wrong. Sometimes, you’ll see one before the actual depicted scene happens. But more often than not, they’ll SUPERIMPOSE TEXT over them. Who in their right mind thought this would be a good tribute to Baum’s legacy?!
Final Verdict: 6.75/10
Call me an uncultured swine, but I didn’t find The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to be all that wonderful. No worldbuilding, no consistency, no visual descriptions, flat dialogue… this might’ve been groundbreaking at the time, but things have changed in 120-odd years. While some classics, like Dracula, age pretty well, this one has not, and I hate it when people act like all literary classics are still objectively great even by modern standards.
However, I am at least curious as to what the rest of the series has to offer. Each installment seems to be pretty self-contained, so I hope to possibly review all fourteen books over a long course of time. I imagine that they get more and more effed up (the cover of the final book has people on fire in the background), and it might be fascinating to see. But as far as recommendations for the original classic are concerned… I’d hold off on it. There are better things out there, with better writing.
The Rick Riordan Presents publishing imprint has breathed new life into Western children’s literature. Debuting with the hit Pandava novels, Riordan has allowed writers to present other foreign cultures in a Percy Jackson-styled fashion to offset the overabundance of ancient Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology in popular culture. In today’s blog, I’m covering The Storm Runner trilogy, written by J.C. Cervantes and published by, well, I just told you.
The Storm Runner stars Zane Obispo, who is just about to enter Catholic school. But this plan gets turned on its head when he runs into a beautiful and enigmatic girl (like you do), named Brook. She tells Zane that he is apparently destined to release the Mayan god of death, Ah-Puch, and he needs to stop that from happening. Pretty simple, isn’t it?
While I was groaning at the whole, “unremarkable boy who gets bullied is approached by the cute girl who tells him he’s special” schtick, The Storm Runner manages to be pretty darn entertaining. The story has fast pacing as well as that great, sarcastic humor that Percy Jackson fans know and love. There’s also some unique meta aspects to the series as well. The first installment is actually an in-universe book that Zane writes in between that and the second installment. He publishes it as a means of bringing other demigods together to do plot stuff.
Unfortunately, I had some issues with it. The Rick Riordan Presents I.P. is meant to generate interest for other cultures in the minds of ignorant American children, but I didn’t find The Storm Runner that interesting. I’m sure the research is solid, but none of the Mayan gods themselves come off as particularly fascinating, nor do they feel creative in the context of the narrative. Sure, they integrate some modern elements into mythical locations, but that’s been done before numerous times.
This next problem is more-so a nitpick, because it’s entirely based on a single line of dialogue that really stood out to me, and because of it, I’ve wanted to assume that Cervantes thinks her audiences are actual idiots (since I take things literally on account of my autism). Basically, they end up in some city in Mexico at one point in the second book, The Fire Keeper. One of the characters doesn’t know which Mexican city it is at a glance, and in response, another character literally calls them “an uncultured swine”. I’m sorry, but that’s indirectly insulting the demographic. If they’re reading this to learn about another culture, then why berate them for not already knowing everything about it? I don’t know who the editor was, but this got past somebody at the publishing house, and it astounds me.
The Storm Runner is further marred by some seriously uninspired characters. While Zane has some good one-liners, he’s really generic. Plus, he makes a certain eye-roll-worthy decision early on that really reduced my initial enjoyment of the books. Also, I felt like his lame leg was a “shock value thing” meant to market the series toward physically disabled people. The reason is that he later gets a power that makes his leg normal, which oh-so conveniently saves the author from having to worry about his leg during any scene with urgency.
Meanwhile, Brook is that role model-esque tomboy, and her sister, Quinn, isn’t that much better. Uncle Hondo, the supporting male, is the best character of the bunch, since he takes the scenario of the series really well for a regular human, and offers some good comic relief. I also like Mrs. Cab, the designated person with the prophecy (but with how many eyeballs she has in her house, she might as well have a prophec-EYE (kudos if you get that reference)), but she doesn’t get much screentime. Book two introduces Renata Santiago, a cute demigod girl whose only personality trait is believing in Erik von Daniken’s alien conspiracy theories that are about as ancient as the Maya themselves at this point.
Normally, when I review these books series, I would discuss my thoughts on the final book in the last paragraph, since the ending is really important. But I’m gonna be honest, I lost interest in the story completely. When I had read book two, it was still new, so I had to wait for The Shadow Crosser to come out. And apparently, I just completely forgot a lot of the story. I know it makes me sound unprofessional, but that’s my honest experience. They kind of shoehorn in some MacGuffin (and these snarky twins) out of nowhere, while the characters spend a lot of time being all like “Oh my god the villains are so galaxy-brained what’re we gonna do!”
Final Verdict: 7/10
I’m sure that Cervantes put all her soul into this, but I don’t feel it. It’s even made me question whether or not I would still enjoy Percy Jackson if I reread it for the first time in over a decade! Honestly, I don’t know what The Storm Runner‘s many fans see in it. Like I said before, it does not give off a particularly fascinating impression of Mayan folklore. There’s no real harm in reading it, but I guarantee you that the Rick Riordan Presents I.P. has some way better stuff to offer (which I’ll get to when I get to it).
Sometimes, the title of a series is so generic and unremarkable that I almost feel like it’s a red herring. I ask myself, “It’s trying so hard to look boring, but does that mean it’s actually legitimately good?” That’s a gambit that I hoped would pay off when I read through The Adventurers Guild series, written by Zack Loran Clark and Nicolas Eliopulous.
A half-elf boy named Zed and a typical human named Brock are ready to join one of Freestone’s many Guilds. They are picked for the Mages and Merchants Guilds respectively; however, this series isn’t titled The Adventurers Guild for nothing. Alasabel Frond, the leader of the titular Guild, yoinks them right out of their respective Guilds and drafts them into the Adventurers Guild. Now they have to protect the world from monsters known as Dangers, and like true warriors, they get nothing for it!
The Adventurers Guild isn’t quite as generic as it looks (key words: “quite as”, but we’ll get to that later). They at least put some good effort into the magic system. Each element is tied to a specific spiritual plane (or something), and they all have a signature that Zed can detect. The writers also pull no punches when it comes to the Dangers’ designs; get used to tentacles coming out of faces and other areas. The prose is also all-around great, but V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic taught me that good writing and good storytelling are two completely different talents.
A lot of things irked me about The Adventurers Guild. One is that—like every modern fantasy and its grandma—there’s social commentary on a lot of bad -isms in society (none of which are commercialism). In addition to my problem with how heavy-handed it gets, The Adventurers Guild makes it unrealistic. And while I normally don’t mind a lack of realism, this case isn’t merely “Ooooh, magic! What is physics again?”; it’s a clash with the human mind itself.
You’d think that people’d get their sh** together to fight a one-dimensional evil alien threat to the whole species. And yet, the bad -isms are still in effect in the world of The Adventurers Guild! Every authority figure in Freestone tries to get Frond arrested because of sexism. And when a group of elves seeks refuge at the start of the second book, they’re treated with unconditional racism. It felt so arbitrary, that the bad -isms were only there for the sake of bad -isms. I’ll acknowledge that the hatred against Zed is justified to an extent. A half-elf warlock is what caused the Dangers in the first place, giving the whole race a bad rep. But that doesn’t excuse the cases of sexism or anything else, really.
Alright, alright. For the sake of argument, let’s just take the bad -isms at face value: a conflict in the story that needs to be resolved. But what is there to talk about? The thing with The Adventurers Guild is that beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting. Dangers are out there, go kill ‘em. That’s really it.
But it damn well tries to be different, that’s for sure. It succeeds to an extent in the two main characters, Zed and Brock. These two both have secrets that they keep from each other, and it’s all “Ooooooh” and stuff. Unfortunately, they have very plastic and flat personalities. The rest of the characters… are just as flat. They’re relatable, which—if you’re not anal about writing—would make them super-duper amazing and lovable. But besides the occasional dumb “kid-like” interactions they have with each during their down time, a lot of their dialgoue feels forced. For someone like me, who has grown to love narcissists like Senku from Dr. Stone, I couldn’t care less about the cast of The Adventurers Guild. I had to do ridiculous things like picturing a character as Lord Don’ator to not fall asleep! The third book does introduce a pretty witty new character, who exists for sarcastic comments, and shows up too late to offset everyone else.
And speaking of the third book, let’s talk about it in the least spoilery way possible. Remember when I said “beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting”? Well, that shows. Night of Dangers completely does away with social undertones and becomes a tedious slog that’s just as cliché as anything else, despite how the trilogy desperately tried to avoid it. The only saving grace is the admittedly enjoyable climax, but saying that it offsets everything else is a stretch. One character even deflects from the main issue super intentionally and it’s never explained why.
Speaking of intentionally, that word is everything wrong with The Adventurers Guild. Virtually none of it felt natural; each story beat was 110% deliberate. As much as having a plan for the narrative is good (in fact, it’s essential), you can’t plan literally everything. You need to have a stream of consciousness effect when writing, which allows some aspects of the story to tell themselves. And if you end up needing to pull something out of your ass, go back and edit earlier parts so that it has proper context. I can’t describe exactly why, but I just felt in my writer-brain that this whole series was… wrong.
Final Verdict: 6/10
The Adventurers Guild tried a lot of things, and it all felt flat to me. In the end, I have no idea what the takeaway of this series is. Is it that racism is bad, or that you shouldn’t keep secrets? Whatever it is, there’s definitely something out there that’s conveyed it better. While this isn’t the worst series on the market, it is still just about as bland as its name implies.
Escapist fantasy is often panned by critics and cynics as “childish crap for babies who want to avoid their real life issues.” But, you know, sometimes it’s important to just turn your brain off and stretch your neural legs in some fantasy world. The Map to Everywhere series, written by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis and published by Hachette Book Group, is just that; escapism at its finest.
On paper, Map to Everywhere is a pretty generic isekai. Marill Aesterwest is worrying about her sickly mother when she follows her cat to an abandoned drug store. In the parking lot is a magic body of water called the Pirate Stream, and she ends up going on a journey with a cool wizard guy and the unremarkable Fin to find the pieces of the Bintheyr Map to Everywhere. And even when they complete the it, that’s only the beginning.
If you couldn’t tell from the names I mentioned, the Map to Everywhere has a lot of clever word puns in it. It doesn’t stop at the words either; the multiverse of this series is one of the most imaginative that I’ve seen in a while. The Pirate Stream connects a whole mess of different worlds together, and they’re all very interesting setpieces, including an ice cap that’s so cold your breath will freeze into the words you say, and a sinking city that’s constantly reconstructing itself. Additionally, the Map itself is also more than just a couple of MacGuffins. The pieces of the Map actually have very meta functions, such as the compass rose finding other pieces, or the margins being able to hold impossible structures together.
The characters are also pretty darn good. I’ll get to Marill later, so let’s discuss Fin first. Fin is generic, but the authors twist the trope by making his genericness into a superpower; everyone he sees forgets about him. However, Marill doesn’t forget about him because… of love, I guess (their dynamic is my least favorite in the entire series). Supporting them is the wizard Ardent, shipwright Coll, and eventually the sassy Naysayer. But out of the bunch, my favorite character is Remy, introduced in the second book, City of Thirst. Remy is Arizona’s best babysitter, and she ends up tagging along on the Pirate Stream. She is the only other person who remembers Fin, and it’s simply because she’s a babysitter and not something as contrived as love.
The writing is pretty solid, with a lot of dynamic font style changes to represent different things. However, the multiverse of Map to Everywhere also shoots itself in the foot. While the setpieces are inventive and descriptive, sometimes they’re just too insane to describe in human language. One of the worst offenders is a place that has chunks of land literally getting sucked into a whirlpool, and the gravity fields there make Super Mario Galaxy look logical.
The multiverse of Map to Everywhere itself also has issues. Magic in modern fantasy often violates its established ruleset, and they end up expecting you to suspend disbelief because “it’s magic.” Map to Everywhere constantly tells you that the Pirate Stream behaves however it feels, and this enables the authors to kind of do whatever they want and get away with it.
But the biggest problem is freaking Marill! She’s not just generic, she’s also annoying. Her entire driving force in this series is to be able to cure her dying mother’s sickness, but her drive gets way out of hand. There are a lot of times where she argues with Fin over whether or not the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and it’s as contrived as heck. It only gets more ridiculous in the final book, along with an additional Mary Sue stipulation, and ultimately solidifies how much I didn’t like her.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
The Map to Everywhere is a flawed, but fun and corny fantasy romp that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s sure a heck of a lot better than stuff like Five Kingdoms! As long as you don’t require any insightful, intellectual life message to enjoy something, then there should be no harm in picking up the Map to Everywhere series.
Before I get into this post, I should remind you that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is one of the most popular franchises in the world. And popular means marketable. Therefore, many other authors have tried to duplicate the series’ success. Some of these Harry Potter wannabe cases have resulted in book series such as Keeper of the Lost Cities and The Unwanteds, which are only appealing on extremely superficial levels. But sometimes, a little touch of a thing called “thought” can actually give a Harry Potter knock-off some of its own merits. Let’s see if that’s the case with Holly Black and Cassandra Clare’s Magisterium series, published by Scholastic.
In the modern world, magicians select random adolescents to test for magic potential. Anyone who tests positive is taken to Magisterium to learn to fight the Enemy of Death and his Chaos magic. Callum Hunt is taught to fear Magisterium, and is compelled to throw the examination. But he doesn’t just fail; he fails so spectacularly, that he passes with flying colors, and it’s off to Magisterium for him!
As much as he’s told to resent Magisterium, it doesn’t take long at all for that Stockholm Syndrome to set in, for the school isn’t just “Hogwarts-again”. While it’s not as defined in terms of its layout, Magisterium at least has a well defined (and simple) system. The years are labeled Iron, Copper, Bronze, Silver, and Gold, in that order, which also happens to be the order of the books, making it easy to remember.
There is also the magic system: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, and Chaos (spoiler, the fifth one is evil magic). It’s not very inventive, but it’s at least not like Keeper of the Lost Cities‘, “Hey, let’s have five billion different types of magic at once, because Sophie needs to be POWERFUL so that all the teenage girls will be inspired to be like her or whatever.” As you can expect, Chaos magic is the dark-type magic that can corrupt souls and junk.
The final decisive advantage that Magisterium has over the rabble is… that it’s SHORT! Hallelujah, holy shit! There are only five books in the series, at approximately 250 pages apiece, much better than Keeper’s “Lord of the Rings x10” length. This means that it can focus on just plot progression (i.e. what we actually care about), and not stuff like Keeper‘s stupid Sophitz Vs. Foster-Keefe drama, or Harry Potter‘s own #SaveTheDobbies subplot. And it’s actually a good plot to boot. The writing wasn’t the best, but it was at least enough to keep me wanting more.
Unfortunately, the short length also means that things end anticlimactically. Harry Potter had an epic final battle, involving so many characters that we’d seen since the very beginning finally duke it out with Voldy’s Death Pimps. But since the Magisterium books are so short, climaxes are here and gone. It’s not like Monogatari where they talk for so long that they forget to fight in the first place. There are battles, they’re just short and unceremonious. This also includes, sadly, the final battle, which I calculated to be around 15-20 pages in total. But hey… silver lining. Being short is still the better outcome.
In order to discuss the characters, I must spoil a reveal about our boy, Callum. This is a spoiler for the climax of the first book, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t wanna read it. The thing about Callum is that he does not exist. At the end of book one, he is told that he is harboring the soul of Constantine Madden, who happens to be the Enemy of Death. This puts him through quite the moral conundrum; something that not even Harry Potter had to go through. Being the “bad guy” would seem to make him super unrelatable, since the kiddies want to project themselves onto the “righteous hero”, but he’s actually relatable in a different way, as he’s constantly suffering an identity crisis (typical of most kids as well).
We also have Aaron, who isn’t actually a Ron Weasely clone. Aaron ends up being a Makar, which is not the guy from Wind Waker, but instead the term for a Chaos magic user. The policy in Magisterium is “fight fire with fire,” as only another Makar can fight the Enemy of Death (I guess?). Call has to be his counterweight, which basically means that he has to make sure Aaron doesn’t get consumed (easier said than done).
The female lead is Tamara, and she’s basically Hermione, minus being smart. She’s kind of a typical tomboyish girl who doesn’t really have anything interesting going for her. The final main character is Jasper, who is basically Malfoy, except he actually becomes an ally after a certain point. But other than his frequent, unfunny jabs at Call, he’s not too interesting either.
In the end, the moral conundrum that they try with Callum falls flat. Sure, he has to deal with his whole crisis, but there’s always a defined antagonist to make him look good. Like I said in my review of Arc of a Scythe, not having a villain that the readers can sympathize with makes writing morally gray narratives really hard. Because of this, it never really feels like Callum has any issues whatsoever. I’ll admit that they do some stuff with Aaron later that’s pretty interesting, but it feels meh in the long run.
The only reason why there’s a moral conundrum is because Magisterium is run by twelve-year-olds. I get that it’s intentional, but it’s still dumb how the faculty are next to worthless. When Callum’s issue is inevitably revealed, at least half of them are like, “He’s a murderer, throw him in jail, arrgh!” with no hesitation. It makes sense for other students to be jerks about it, but the adults should’ve had a more rational approach because they’re… ADULTS. There’s also the policy on the Devoured, which is when a person gets too into their element. The Magisterium says that being Devoured turns you into a rampaging monster, yet EVERY SINGLE Devoured that appears in the story is WELL in control of their humanity. I get that’s also intentional… but that just makes it arbitrary.
Final Verdict: 7/10
Despite all its flaws, Magisterium is still the best Harry Potter knockoff I’ve read to date. The authors try some interesting ideas, but once again, it seems that teaching young’uns about moral ambiguity is impossible. No! Kids must be raised believing that there’s only one-dimensional good and one-dimensional evil in the world! Well whatever… Magisterium has decent entertainment value. If you were threatened at gunpoint to read through all of a Harry Potter knockoff, then pick this one.
I said in my 5 Worlds post that I haven’t had the best track record with Western graphic novels. But you know what, I’m still trying my best to understand the appeal of the medium. Today’s [hopefully not] victim is The Witch Boy series, written by Molly Knox Ostertag and published by Scholastic (the same publisher as Amulet… good sign already).
A boy named Aster comes from a long line of magic, demon-fighting wizards. The men of the family are good at turning into magic, the girls are good at literally everything else. Young Aster sucks at shapeshifting, but he happens to have a knack for girl magic. Too bad it’s forbidden.
The Witch Boy is an episodic trilogy where Aster hangs out until some conflict rears its ugly head, and thank goodness it is! If this was a stand-alone graphic novel, it would’ve felt rushed. While it does spend a decent amount of time setting things up, the plot suddenly kicks into high gear out of nowhere, and the entire conflict of the first book is resolved in a very anticlimactic matter.
It doesn’t get much better later on, though. The other two books, The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch, are presented in a similar manner. There isn’t enough time to really grow attached to any characters before sh** hits the fan. Each of these arcs would’ve been two or three volumes in a manga. “They would be three or four volumes in a manga, because manga suck and waste time with filler,” you point out. That’s not an inaccurate point; I hate the stupidly long cavalry battle in Prison School as much as the next guy. But a truly good manga will give you the right amount of time to get immersed in the world and the characters in a way that feels organic.
To be brutally honest, I don’t think I would’ve grown attached to the characters even if The Witch Boy was three times longer. They’re all my least favorite character trope; normal human beings. And despite the series being called The Witch Boy, the titular witch boy’s entire arc is concluded in just the first book. The second and third books tackle the character arc of Ariel Torres. She’s better than Aster, but not by a wide margin. While she’s given the most development by far, there is a disconnect because it’s all from the perspective of Aster- an observer, so you never really get to see her tragic backstory in its full crotch-kickedy-ness (professional term). Maybe the series would’ve been better if Ariel was the main character the whole way through?
If there’s any character I disliked the most, it was freaking Charlie. She’s the embodiment of that slice-of-life equivalent of wish fulfilment fantasies: the magical, down-to-earth, hyper-supportive friend who just appears to “save” the depressed main character. In this case, she saves Aster in the first book, and Ariel in the second book, by just compulsively wanting to help them for an undefined reason. While it’s certainly possible for someone this compassionate to exist, it’s not likely- given how unstable most teens are- and as indicated in my Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki post, I don’t think it’s a good element for a narrative.
I don’t feel like there’s any substance put into these characters, but that’s- again- a consequence of how short the whole series is. Also, like with the other Western comics I’ve read, you don’t get any monologue to really know how they feel. “Monologues waste time, like in those stupid battle shounen manga,” you argue. Again, in a bad manga, monologues can get excessive. But sometimes, it’s necessary in order to really get in people’s heads. “How about understanding basic human emotions and non-verbal cues?” Well, in that case, I’m sorry for not being good at social skills.
I get that there’s some underlying theme with genders, given the whole “boys do this, girls do that.” I don’t mean to sound ignorant, but as someone who had a My Little Pony doll for each of his LEGO sets, I couldn’t take such rigid labeling seriously, despite the fact that I do know it’s sadly commonplace. But due to Ariel’s priority over Aster, the series doesn’t even explore that theme in much depth to begin with.
In the end, my biggest issue- like with the other GNs I’ve read- lies in the artwork. I don’t really mind the simplistic, cartoony character designs, but I do mind the sparse use of motion lines. There are some motion lines, but they’re used for very trivial things, like hand gestures, and not during more urgent scenes, such as- you know- fighting a demon or something. “Use your imagination, you piece of crap,” you assert. Look, I read regular novels- which are almost entirely words- every day, and provided that the writing is good enough, I can paint a pretty vivid picture in my brain. The Witch Boy is targeted toward elementary schoolers, and going off of my experience as one, no kid would have the capacity to just “imagine” stuff with so little visual information.
My biggest issue with the art is how it’s used to tell the story, or lack thereof. I could’ve downed each volume in under an hour, but I took my sweet time and really tried to understand how the composition was supposed to, you know, work. But even with how much I stared at pages of this thing, I just couldn’t see it.
Like with other GNs, The Witch Boy uses half a page- or even an entire page- with a mere establishing shot. Otherwise, most panels are rectangular and arranged in uninteresting patterns. But the author at leasts goes a couple of extra miles; by changing the negative space around the panels to black when it’s dark, and by having “slime-shaped” panels whenever something eerie is occurring. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t get immersed in the story, its characters, or its world.
Final Verdict: 5.75/10
I didn’t enjoy The Witch Boy. I don’t know what it is, but trying to understand and appreciate these comics has been an absolute hassle for me. I exited my comfortable zone of Japanese culture and busty waifus, tried something unfamiliar, and it didn’t pay off. I’ll admit it, this negative review is entirely my fault. I apologize to the author for insulting something that they poured their heart into. Maybe someday, if I ever can enjoy a Western comic, I’ll come back to The Witch Boy, and realize just how great it truly was.