Friday, January 5, 2018

Rogue Knight by Brandon Mull

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

After a law school colleague mentioned her kids like Brandon Mull, we gave them a try on audiobook. In general, they are fast paced, full of imagination, and good for keeping a driver awake on a long drive. We started with Fablehaven, which is his first series. We never got beyond the first book on our trips, but my sons have really taken to them, particularly my younger one. They have read at least the first three books - and I suspect it may be all five. I lost track of what they borrow from the library long ago. Next was The Candy Shop War, which has a single sequel that my kids own, but I haven’t read. We ended up with that one because I ordered it before Fablehaven, but it took forever for our library to get it from another library in the system. Finally, last year, we listened to Sky Raiders, which is the first of the Five Kingdoms set. Since the next in the series was readily available on audiobook, I decided to continue that series this year.

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of Mull’s writing is his seemingly endless imagination. At last count, Mull has written six different series (or at least parts of them), each with its own unrelated world. And these worlds are hardly just there for the plots, they unfold into dazzling universes full of detail and wonders around every corner.

The plots and characters are interesting, but not on the same level as the worlds. The books are aimed at ages 9-13, which seems more or less right, although older and younger can enjoy them. (Particularly my kids, who aren’t exactly typical in their reading habits.) 

Rogue Knight picks up the story of Sky Raiders exactly where the latter left off. These books were clearly intended as a set of five from the outset. There are five kingdoms, and each is (apparently) explored in turn. Each contains its own kind of magic and “shaping” power, as well as its own dangers and mysteries. Sky Raiders took place in Sambria, while Rogue Knight is mostly set in Elloweer, the home kingdom of Twitch, who is kind of a human grasshopper hybrid.

As in the first book, Cole is one of a group of kids kidnapped and sold into slavery in The Outskirts. He has escaped captivity, and is on the run along with Jace, a fellow slave, and Mira, one of the daughters of the High King, who faked his daughters’ deaths and stole their magical powers years ago.

There are some plot similarities between the two books, which are driven by two factors. First is plot-based. The High King has lost control of his daughters’ powers, and they are - in some way or another - running amok in their respective kingdoms. Thus, the quest is largely the same: discover the missing daughter, and reunite her with her power. The second is, in my opinion, that Mull (who is roughly my age) is of the first video game generation. So many elements in this series in particular remind me of the old NES games. Explore, gain magical items and skills, rescue the princess, and defeat the big boss. I noted that in Sky Raiders, the floating castles are so much like video game dungeons - in a good way - that that part of the book felt like discovering a new game for the first time - over and over as new castles were explored. Alas, it was time to move on before I felt Mull had run out of fun ideas. Fortunately, there were other parts of the world to explore.

Rogue Knight retains some of the video-game plot elements, but with a different feel. Elloweer is a very different place. In Sambria, shapers fashion “semblances” and “renderings,” which are analogous to robots and tools respectively. They do their task, but without intelligence beyond their programming. (Although in some cases, the AI is better than others.) But all this shaping is physical. Things actually physically exist. They are cool magical technology, but they are no more mysterious than our own tech.

In contrast, Elloweer’s version of shaping is focused on “seemings.” These are things that appear to be, but are not in reality. Everything is an illusion - a really good illusion, and sometimes one that can kill you just fine - but they do not have physical existence apart from actual objects. Thus, a skilled shaper can make you look to others like someone else, but you will still be yourself underneath it. Only the most skilled shapers can make seemings independent of objects (or people) that stand alone. However, for many purposes, seemings are quite useful - as long as they aren’t destroyed by a “scrubber.”

Another interesting thing in Elloweer is the “confidence lounge.” These are kind of like a brothel or opium den - except for secrets. The clients go in, get a changing disguise, and swap gossip and intelligence. Yeah, a bit more g-rated - and yet spookier - than the analogues - these are kids books.

So anyway, Cole, Jace, Twitch, and Mira having defeated the boss in Sambria and reunited Mira with her powers, head to Elloweer, responding to a distress signal from Mira’s sister Honor. And hear about the twin terrors laying waste to Elloweer. The first is a mysterious terror who is creating an army of zombies (more or less) out of the inhabitants. The second is the Rogue Knight, who takes advantage of the challenge system of politics which governs the kingdom, and turns the taxation on its head (kind of like Robin Hood…) Both are unknown factors. The third factor is a mysterious figure imprisoned at the edge of the world, who appears to be a spiritual power from outside of the Five Kingdoms.

And then there are the minions of the High King, on the lookout for Cole and his companions. Things get intense, shall we say.

As in his other books, Mull is actually fairly thoughtful, introducing ethical dilemmas at age appropriate levels. The value of loyalty to one’s friends, compassion to one’s enemies if possible, and the limitation of collateral damage in a just war are all good lessons which are weaved throughout the books. In this particular book, I really noticed the theme (begun on the first one) that power itself causes destruction, unless it is kept under the control of those to whom it belongs. This goes beyond the “power corrupts” truism, and beyond the idea of choosing to use one’s power for good and not evil.

Rather, in this world, power which is stolen is catastrophically dangerous. The little kid, Brady, who accidentally creates a fantasy/nightmare world in the first book, has his power stolen, which then devours its new host and goes on a rampage (much as Mira’s did in the first book.) Honor’s power too becomes destructive - and is really only controlled and channelled because the evil characters in the series try to graft the power to an honorable person. (Hey, nice parallelism there, Mull…) If anything, the lesson here seems to be to be content with your own power, develop it, and use it for good. Stolen power just destroys the thief, leaving destruction it its wake. That seems true about our world as well.

I also credit Mull for creating believable and sympathetic characters. Even the sarcastic and egotistical Jace is likeable in his own way - even more so in the second book, as he cracks his shell a bit to reveal his true self. Mira still remains an enigma - but that is part of the plot. She isn’t some kid out on an adventure, but a centuries old princess stuck in a kid’s body.

I wouldn’t put Mull’s books in the pantheon of children’s literature exactly, but as highly imaginative fantasy, with age appropriate explorations of themes and dilemmas, and careful plotting, they are definitely in the category of “good.” Mull is no Terry Pratchett, but he doesn’t exactly write fluff either. These books seem like they will age reasonably well, as they are not tied to current culture particularly (video game aesthetics aside), but rely on the timeless appeal of adventures, quests, and magical worlds.  

The audiobook, like Sky Raiders, was narrated by Keith Nobbs. He is a youngish actor, and seems to fit the Five Kingdoms books well. His voices aren’t quite as varied as the very best readers, but they aren’t bad. You can definitely tell who is talking, as long as there are no more than 5 or 6 characters talking in a scene. My wife noted the strange use of Eastern European accents for many of the more “exotic” characters. It does seem weird a bit, I guess, and I am not sure of the book itself has those in there. (Unlike the way Twitch talks, with periods after every other word…)

I also should note that one of the disks was horribly scratched and unplayable. After a previous audiobook issue of this nature, I have always checked the disks for playability before we leave on a trip. In this case, I just grabbed the print book, and my wife read to us for the hour or so it took to get through that disk. She is a fantastic reader herself, so no drop-off in quality. She’s probably glad she didn’t have to read all 11 disks, though…

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