Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from the library

We had our introduction to Brandon Mull with Fablehaven, which we listened to on or trip to see the in-laws for Christmas. However, the fact that Fablehaven came first was due to an accident. Originally, I had ordered The Candy Shop War from our library. It’s a big system, and you can order stuff from branches a hundred or more miles away. For some reason, there ended up being a waitlist for it, so I left it on order and ordered Fablehaven, which came in first. Thus, we listened to that one, and then The Candy Shop War when it came in a month later.

Brandon Mull can certainly write an exciting and well-plotted book. If anything, this one is more like a mystery novel than the fantasy of Fablehaven. However, there are significant similarities that are perhaps themes in Mull’s writing. We will have to read/listen to more and see, I suppose.

First, a bit of the plot and the world Mull builds. As in Fablehaven, ordinary children discover a hidden world, which lurks just beneath the surface of the “real” one. In The Candy Shop War, it turns out that there are wizards who are searching for a treasure which lies in the town that the four children, Nate, Trevor, Summer, and “Pigeon” inhabit. These wizards are very old, and only survive by staying in their heavily enchanted lairs. Furthermore, they are largely immune to the effects of magic, which is most effective on children, and loses its potency as a person ages. Well, at least the kind of magic that can be used to do things. The magic that makes one oblivious to what is going on seems to work on everyone.

The four children happen to come into a new candy shop in town one day, and meet Mrs. White, who offers to let them earn special candy by doing tasks for her. The first one is weird: gathering mushrooms full of insect eggs using special bait, but the reward is amazing. They are given “moon rocks,” which make them light enough to leap great distances.

However, once the children are hooked, the tasks become more dangerous, and more morally questionable. Before they know it, they have broken into a museum to steal an artifact (that Mrs. White claims belonged to an ancestor), and robbed a grave. When she asks them to wipe the memory of the local ice cream man (who turns out also to be a wizard), they finally have had enough. Now, however, they are essentially fighting against Mrs. White, who has turned on them. Things eventually end up with a showdown between Mrs. White and the others, who have made a temporary truce to defeat the greater threat. In addition to Mr. Stott, the ice cream man, they join forces with John Dart, a sort of cross between a policeman and a mob enforcer within the wizard world.

A few things about this book. I’ll start with the one thing I didn’t like. This struck me with Fablehaven as well, but not as much. Mull simply writes awkwardly about race. It’s almost as if he was a white Mormon kid who grew up in largely middle-class, white surroundings, went to BYU, and...oh, that actually looks a good bit like his biography. So yes, when he mentions race, it’s not natural to him. In this book, it comes up in this context. To disguise themselves while doing their little burglary stunts, Mrs. White gives them “melting pot mixers,” which randomly change their race temporarily. As I said, awkward. Not the idea, but how it was handled. Basically, nothing changes. I grew up in a predominantly minority neighborhood, and believe me, plenty of things change. Let’s just say that in no way would I want to be African American and be breaking into a museum. Not the best plan for survival. Heck, even having a toy gun can be dangerous enough. And one can’t help but think that after the fact, in what appears to be a predominantly white town setting, the three black kids in school would have been hauled in for questioning after they appeared on the video camera. Just saying. This is the worst, but one gets the idea that Mull tries really hard to be colorblind, at the expense of actually noticing things. In that sense, the weakness in his writing is his lack of observation.

I feel silly in some ways even pointing this out, because this is, for goodness sake, just a kid fantasy book. It’s not expected to be great writing, and one isn’t necessarily expecting depth of characterization. Anthony Trollope this is not, and makes no pretence of being. Still, just, I guess, a bit awkward.

That out of the way, there are so many things to love about this book. The ending is outstanding, sneaking up even on me, who usually does a good job of guessing when I read murder mysteries. The ending was a surprise of the best kind, leaving one feeling the opposite of cheated. On a related note, Mull did a fantastic job of plotting and pacing this book. Looking back, it was just like the best of mysteries, as no object, no detail, no occurrence was forgotten or accidental. Details mattered, and were not just there for decoration. In contrast, there was a little bit of a deux ex machina feel to the ending of Fablehaven. In context, it was a good ending, and fit with the imaginative world it was set in. In The Candy Shop War, success depended so much on the quick wits of the protagonists that it really required that the children would have to find a way themselves without powerful outside aid.

Another thing I loved about this book was the sheer imagination of the world. The foundation idea that “don’t take candy from strangers” wasn’t just an invention of modern helicopter parents, but an ancient saying to protect children from the wiles of devious wizards was a nice starting point. From there, one suspects that the ideas for the candies themselves arose from the author spending days just dreaming of cool ideas. There is no end to the creativity, and one suspects that if book length were not an issue, he could have kept right on going.

The attractions of this book weren’t just those of the imagination, however. If Fablehaven sometimes felt a bit like an allegory of Original Sin, The Candy Shop War poses more immediate ethical dilemmas. How does one know who to trust? Those who seem nice may or may not be that way at heart. And who is telling the truth? How do you know? One of the answers suggested is that those who have something to gain will often hide crucial details. Once you know the possible motives, things are not as benign as they seem. This seems to be a good thing for kids to contemplate. At least to a lawyer who thinks that “follow the money” would have saved a client or two from falling for scams.

Other questions contemplated are whether the end ever justifies the means, is revenge something we should seek, and how does one avoid the corruption of power. Good things to think about, in any case. Mull does a decent job with these themes. He’s no Terry Pratchett  - who is as good as they come at writing moral thinking into his books - but he is no slouch either. 

Just a word on the common ideas I have noted in both books. First I already mentioned, which is realistic setting, but with a hidden world. Another is the idea of the fuse. In Fablehaven, malevolent beings are secured with knots. In order to untie a knot, the being must do a favor at the request of another. The magic power in the knot is released to do the favor. Likewise, in this book, there is a character who is called a “fuse.” He can only do so much magic before he loses his ability to exist. The amount he has used is represented by how much of his body is covered with a birthmark. When he has no normal skin left, he dies. Just an interesting parallel. I suppose either could have a metaphorical idea behind it - or at least one it would be possible to create. The third parallel is the connection between food and drink and magic. This isn’t original to Mull, obviously, but he seems fond of it. (Likewise, I think Mull likes food, because even the non-magical stuff gets heavy play in his books.) In this book, the white fudge causes stupor and lack of awareness, while the milk in Fablehaven gives sight of the hidden world. An interesting idea.

There is a sequel to this book, apparently, but it is not (yet) part of a longer series like Fablehaven. I suppose it doesn’t lend itself to that. Once the secret about the magic candy is out, the protagonists, at least, will never be as innocently drawn into the world of wizards. Future antagonists will need to find a new tool.

My kids love Brandon Mull. They’ve already checked out the next Fablehaven book in print form. (Which means I need to play catch-up…) These have been a great addition to our traveling audiobook list. The great pacing and plots do a good job at keeping the driver awake, and they help the miles melt away. The Candy Shop War was enjoyable, and all of us recommend it. 

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