“The Red Pyramid” A Promising But Iffy Series Opener

The first book in The Kane Chronicles, a middle grade fantasy trilogy from Rick Riordan, promises an interesting world, but fumbles the delivery.

Rick Riordan, the keeper of many a fond middle school memory, returns to the mythological fun and archaic-curio-prompted adventures that made his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series such an unflagging romp in The Red Pyramid, the first in a trilogy of middle grade fantasy novels inspired by Egyptian mythology. Though the elevator pitch is pretty much the same, this volume departs from Percy Jackson in some really promising ways, but on the other hand, an unwillingness to make narrative sacrifices that stick and consistently floppy action sequences tank this book’s sense of scale.

Instead of building to an apocalypse like he did in PJO‘s five installments, Riordan threatens the end of all life as we know it from the get-go, and fittingly, the adventuring party––estranged siblings Carter and Sadie Kane, along with a rotating door of various magical and/or godly chaperones––loses members to hordes of scorpions, crocodile gods, and haughty sorcerer leadership, to much tragic fanfare. However (and this is the sticking point), if I had a nickel for every time a character shockingly returned from almost certain death, I probably wouldn’t have more than 25¢, but it’s odd that such a Marvel-movie bait-and-switch becomes habit here for a storyteller who’s demonstrated a perfectly competent sense of stakes elsewhere. The thing about bringing characters back from the dead is that it’s a plot tool that can be worn down with repeated use. Do it once and it’s a triumphant return that sets a stirring reunion in motion; do it with The Red Pyramid‘s frequency and no threat of annihilation or death you make will carry any weight, ever again.

Also, concerning the rotating door of chaperones: this hero’s journey has a few mentors too many. Part of the fun of a long and arduous quest is the familiarity it inevitably breeds between our characters. Percy, Annabeth, and Grover leave Camp Half-Blood strangers, and come back an iconic trio. When you sacrifice that commitment to a set of characters for the whole duration of the journey, instead trotting out multiple distinctive figures who essentially fulfill the same narrative role (and––even more egregiously––disappear under dangerous circumstances only to return for round 2!!), you cheapen the scaffolding of your plot, you cheapen any hope of a connection your characters might have, and you cheapen the potential of your characters coming off memorably. You can have Amos, Thoth, Zia, or Bast. Maybe even more than one. But you cannot have all four.

Interestingly, as the strengths of Percy Jackson become weaknesses here, the shortcomings of the very same get a fresh treatment and become The Kane Chronicles‘ strongest assets, particularly as it concerns worldbuilding. In PJO, things feel rather haphazard, like the internal logic is a desperate slap of glue to hold the various mythic hijinks together (it more-or-less works because Riordan has so much fun both parodying quest stories and winking at the audience through his own), but the world of The Kane Chronicles has depths and conflicting factions that beg to be further explored. You get the most enticing sense of richness here: little corners of our journey hint at whole novel-worthy stories transpiring just out of our sight. It’s enough to make you wish this flighty tale had a bit more focus––I’d probably be falling over my feet with praise for whatever mentor character we might have gotten for the whole thing, if only Riordan had stuck to them.

I’m particularly intrigued by the potential further explorations of the House of Life, the ancient association of magicians, hold: I want to meet more new recruits and see what it’s like to train under this order. I want to see what animates the passionate debate afoot in the highest levels of the maybe-trustworthy, maybe-not magical establishment. I want to see more of the Chief Lector and his shifting loyalties.

And, damn it, I’m reading the next one.

This review was originally posted on Goodreads earlier this year. I have since reviewed the next one! (I liked it a bit more.)

What I Read in May

As it’s fast becoming clear that I sadly can’t write a 900-word review of everything I read, I thought it would be nice to start doing wrap-ups, as a way to hammer out my thoughts on each of the books without much fuss. May was pretty good, I’d say. I got 9 books in, bringing my total to 44! Not bad for a sleepy college student 😌

No. 36 | Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ll be the first to admit that Elizabeth Gilbert’s fanciful approach to creativity isn’t for everyone: if it seems heavy-handed to suggest that creativity is the art of bringing forth “the treasures hidden within you,” just wait until she gets to the bit about genius. But Big Magic has been a huge comfort to me over the years, simply because it told me precisely what I needed to hear––that art doesn’t have to mean suffering, that letting go and embracing playfulness is as vital as the work itself––at a time when I insisted on a more punitive model of creativity, with such conviction that it almost extinguished my desire to create altogether. I return to it periodically, as I did at the beginning of this month, and every time, it rings more true.

No. 37 | Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

Tahereh Mafi’s middle-grade follow up to her Shatter Me trilogy follows a girl born entirely without color in a world where all magic depends on it. In search of her long-lost father, she travels through Mafi’s bombastic worldbuilding in the land of Furthermore. By all accounts, this should be a sweeping, whimsical adventure, but its clumsy execution leaves much to be desired: the chatty prose betrays too much, and the logic of Furthermore (the place) falls apart if you so much as poke it. Mafi has some fascinating concepts for magical villages and exciting characters, but they’re all ultimately lost in the fluff.

No. 38 | A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

I love Roshani Chokshi’s gorgeous follow-up to The Star-Touched Queen beyond words. I gushed about it a perhaps-embarrassing amount in my review, but it bears repeating because the month is almost up and the poetry of this book hasn’t yet left me: this is the wondrous, enchanting, tenuous-allies-to-lovers story your heart needs. There are few hungers this tale cannot feed.

No. 39 | The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas

With the villain from The Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu, at its helm, this little-known (and unfinished) spin-off boasts a vast array of interesting side characters and finely-woven intrigues, but Dumas’ pontificating, as well as his expository historical interludes, can get on one’s nerves, especially where it concerns battles, which in this book almost always entail a ten-page summary, sans dialogue, that feels like an eternity. A note: if you feel the need to outwardly apologize to your reader for the hassle of catching them up to speed, you’ve probably gone too far.

No. 40 | The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

This was one of my dad’s favorite books in middle school, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s funny, adventurous, and fronted by a truly lovable ensemble, the likes of which I can’t say I’ve really found since I finished the Percy Jackson series last year. The book isn’t anything new, but it’s familiar in all the right ways. There are plenty of young, unready heroes floating around in children’s fantasy classics, but I can’t say they stick with me quite like Taran does. (I have a review of it here.)

No. 41 | The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Fans of Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy are legion––in fact, it was one in their ranks who compelled me to read this book––but I unfortunately will not be joining them. I enjoyed the worldbuilding, and some of the supporting characters (Vivienne most of all), but Cardan still feels too vague for me to latch onto––a fatal shortcoming for such an important player––and the clumsy integration of contemporary teen life into the fantasy setting fiddled with a stakes in a way that made the most critical dramatic turns ring a bit hollow. It’s nevertheless a promising start, but I hope the drawn-out final third is a fumble that won’t be repeated.

No. 42 | Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

This YA mystery novel follows Daunis Fontaine, a biracial, unenrolled tribal member, as a meth crisis grips her Ojibwe community and she’s tapped to go undercover in an investigation that could prove fatal at worst, and destructive at best. Angeline Boulley’s standout use of science and the deft hand of lived experience (Boulley is also Ojibwe) are the book’s greatest assets, particularly where it concerns the tangled ethics of aiding an institution with a violent past when it comes to Native communities, as Daunis wrestles with the investigation and its potential consequences. Though the pile-up of reversals at the end weakens the book’s conclusion, it’s still an effective thriller overall, best if your tastes are suited to an atmospheric slow-burn, and a healthy dose of hockey.

No. 43 | The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games was all the rage in my fourth-grade classroom. My mom had read it, judged it not too gory, and allowed it into my hands, though there was drama abounding among my classmates about who was and wasn’t allowed to read it, and it seemed like we were all eagerly awaiting the movie the following year. The book is still as fresh and engrossing as ever, owing to Suzanne Collins’ immaculate use of structure, but it’s the commentary, I think, that really stuck with me. Most dystopians afterwards went all in on one idea (which, to be clear, still managed to spawn many favorite books of mine), but it’s a rare joy to see The Hunger Games cover so much, and so well. It loses just a scrap on reread, through a weak climax and a disorienting abundance of flashback, but I can see at a glance how this book made my younger self a reader, and I think I like her choice.

No. 44 | The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

This book follows Romy Silvers, the daughter of astronauts on an interstellar mission, who has been alone on the ship Infinity after their deaths, with decades to go until planetfall. Though Lauren James’ prose is compulsively readable, and the pages pass quickly, James mismanages a drastic switch in tone and crafts a trite, uninteresting villain, ending the book with a dull thud.

I Gently Entreat You To Read “The Book of Three”

With a 60th anniversary in the offing, Lloyd Alexander’s 1964 The Book of Three is predictably familiar, having been published only ten years after The Lord of the Rings‘ inaugural volume, in an era before we as a society collectively ran archetypal, medieval-inspired, hero’s journey quest fantasy into the ground. I say this lovingly, for the sake of anyone on the hunt for something fresh, surprising, or staggering from their fantasy: this one ain’t it.

There is, however, a different kind of virtue in a story that knows precisely what works about the tried and true, and if that’s what you’re looking for, The Book of Three has it in spades: a restless and unready hero whose inexperience actually shows. A band of adventurers whose friendship develops in a subtle yet satisfying slow burn. Magic that, while relatively straightforward in this first installment, hints at depths yet to be explored.

When we meet Taran, a kid who works the pens and anvils at the castle of Caer Dallben, it’s practically inevitable that some mishap will send him careening into a quest in Prydain, the fantasy world where the book is set, with a dangerous mission and even more dangerous pursuers, but one of the joys of The Book of Three is that it never truly stops feeling accidental. Taran, as eager a hero as he might be, is never done making mistakes, having his sheltered assumptions challenged, and––this is possibly my favorite part––putting up with an earful from his traveling companions.

It takes a deft hand to craft a group dynamic that constantly trades flack without it feeling mean-spirited or angled at a particular member, but Lloyd Alexander manages it well, even considering the additions of two comedic relief characters, the Gollum-like (but not quite as antagonistic) Gurgi, and the flighty-king-turned-bard Fflewddur Fflam, whose harp breaks a string in protest every time he tells a flagrant lie. (This conceit sounds cheesy, but it’s actually quite funny in execution.)

Gurgi, especially, presents a danger, with his habitual groveling, of making our main characters look like bullies, but Alexander is careful to make Taran––the youngest, the antsiest, and the most naïve––the keeper of most of the impatience, lending the book a chance to use Taran’s interactions with Gurgi as a tool of character. It pays off in warm, fuzzy found-family feelings the same way some of the ribbing from the other characters does, when we get to the end and discover that the irritability of strangers forced to work together has become the good-natured teasing of friends right under our noses.

Gwydion, the ragged prince Taran meets on the road at the beginning, is an excellent choice as a mentor for this very reason. The wizened, all-powerful sorcerers and kings mostly occupy the margins in The Book of Three, leaving the role of the guide to a character who hasn’t yet come into his own as a ruler, and is thus a a wanderer in this world, same as Taran, seeking a place arm-in-arm with our untitled, everykid hero.

Not only does this nurture the closeness of the group dynamic; it also allows Gwydion to act as a protector on terms of equality, less a father figure than an older brother type, and every bit the begrudging guardian recent pop culture has made us so fond of.

This assessment is incomplete, however, without Eilonwy, the niece of a minor antagonist, who is truly the bitterly complaining glue that holds this ensemble together. About the same age as Taran, she’s whip-smart but not above hurling a few insults, the perfect bantery remedy for when things get a little too comfortable around here.

Eilowny works brilliantly as a foil to Taran––where he’d give almost anything to be of noble birth and poised to be a mover and shaker in this world, Eilonwy very thoroughly wants no part of it––but she’s also an excellent character in her own right, owing to the breadth of Alexander’s characterization. Like Fflewddur Fflam, she’s a study in feeling constrained by, and ultimately fleeing, one’s title. Once she does, she also functions as an effective young hero, capable of fending for herself but not then infallible, or instantly an expert in unfamiliar territory. She’s impulsive, hasty, uncertain, and, as is to be expected, rather new at this sort of thing.

Not every fantasy character needs to fumble the sword, of course, but it can be easier to root for a genuine novice because that experience honestly cuts closer to the heart than expertise. Though it isn’t necessarily a weakness where a story offers us over-competence, it certainly works to The Book of Three‘s advantage that even in the final battle, our intrepid pre-teen leads aren’t entirely equipped on their own, and they’re only a small part of the hand that deals the victory. (This plays into the very spoiler-y role of a certain sword, and the wonderfully resonant context of the first time it’s drawn.)

For a story that otherwise deals in the well-executed familiar, this one focused subversion, in writing a hero who is very visibly not a chosen one, becomes its greatest asset. Despite Taran’s uncertain and possibly noble parentage, he reads wholly like the unprepared, ordinary kid he is, and real, substantive, plot-affecting mistakes, something a great deal of recent fantasy lacks, absolutely litter his hero’s journey, making every small victory all the more satisfying––because the plot isn’t sworn to give it to him.

In tandem with this, Alexander’s restraint where it concerns scale sets the stage for a promising direction in the sequels. Arawn, our all-powerful villain, has yet to show face, and the goal in this volume is a far cry from the high stakes we’ll likely encounter later, but the foundational work seems poised to yield a believable expansion in scope, and that’s more than can be said for a work that deals in world-ending stakes right out of the gate, like Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid: from there, you have nowhere left to go.

Prydain, however, is still wide open. I can’t wait to see where it leads us.

A Story Imprisoned by Style in “Furthermore”

“Ferenwood had been built on color,” Tahereh Mafi writes of her protagonist, Alice’s, magical homeland in her middle grade debut. “Bursts of it, swaths of it, depths and breadths of it.” What seems a surprising new direction after her gritty, post-apocalyptic Shatter Me series actually, considering Mafi’s lush, lyrical writing in her excursion into sci-fi, makes perfect sense.

Now, in a genre and category that rewards whimsy, where a witty and knowing narrator can slip right into the action without much fuss, Mafi’s vivid metaphors and heady descriptions of feeling are never at risk of being read melodramatically. For the YA dystopian author who once wrote “every butterfly in the world has migrated to my stomach,” Furthermore, with its adventurous spirit and Wonderland worldbuilding, should be the perfect fit. So why isn’t it?

In terms of reading experience, realizing Furthermore doesn’t know where it’s going is something of a slow burn: the narration style is, at least, outwardly charming, and some of the odd narrative choices it enables––revealing characters’ motivations right away, using flowery prose to explain the depth of a characters’ feelings rather than elaborating through dialogue or description––seem like choices made in good faith.

But after a full fourth of the book passes, and the slow, sputtering engine of our adventure still hasn’t managed to get it rolling, Furthermore becomes less a boundary-breaking experiment in tone and more an empty vessel for pithy sayings and flashy fantasy concepts, where everything that could go wrong when a book plays fast and loose with magic and gleefully chucks the fourth wall, does.

When we first learn about Alice Alexis Queensmeadow, a girl born entirely without color in a world that prizes it above all else, we’re told exactly everything we need to know: her lack of color and how it affects her, her disposition, her relationship with her mother (cold), her relationship with her father (warm), and her special talent (dancing). We are told all of this outright, in a simple scene of her going about her daily life, with hardly any action, and almost all exposition.

Later on, whenever a critical piece of information comes into play, we’re given it, again, outright, at the whims of a narrator who, to Mafi’s credit, certainly reads like someone who’d opt for expediency, but, of course, in consequence, knowing everything makes nothing a surprise.

In one frustrating instance, as Alice runs from her childhood enemy-turned-traveling-companion, Oliver, Mafi not only pauses the action to spend almost a page walking us through her motives; she stops to explain Oliver’s shortsightedness, too, denying the conflict between them the chance to fester into something with true consequences.

Tension, in other words, has no hope of survival in the pages of Furthermore––either the chatty narrator spills information that should’ve been concealed, or otherwise left for inference, or hides it until a convenient moment, and upon its release, the revelation feels arbitrary; something whipped up only to magic a messy situation away.

Where worldbuilding is concerned, Furthermore belongs in a tradition of colorfully embracing the nonsensical, which children’s fantasy has been borrowing from since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: The School for Good and Evil fits this tradition, as does Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series. When things don’t, strictly speaking, make “sense”––when rules appear out of nowhere and magic is unpredictable––there are myriad opportunities for satire, inventiveness, and zany concepts that would absolutely wreck the suspension of disbelief in a straight-laced fantasy novel.

That’s what it seems like Furthermore is going for here: in the land of Furthermore, where Alice and Oliver travel to recover Alice’s missing father, there’s a village of paper, a village to the left of a signpost called Left, and travel-by-painting, but instead of coming off as whimsical, all these ideas read like bells and whistles, mere distractions from the fact that deep within Furthermore, there isn’t a uniting principle for all this chaos––only a half-baked attempt at one.

Take Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for instance: Wonderland is a supremely nonsensical place, but that’s by design. The whole point of its nonsense is to face Alice, a person who expects the world to operate logically, with the utterly arbitrary. It’s a decision that reflects character, but can also work as an analogue for the very real experience of coming of age in our labyrinthine and often nonsensical adult world. (Yes, I never shut up about Alice, but this is why.)

In Furthermore, the uniting principle is a heedless disregard for the responsible use of magic, which has made its villages the chaotic places they are, and has also made stray travelers from Ferenwood, a place rich in magic, a delicacy ripe for consumption.

However prominent a threat this explanation provides to our characters, though, we never get the sense that it has any real bearing on the illogic of Furthermore: it serves neither as a proper analogue nor as a suitable reflection of our leads and their flaws.

As a work, Furthermore is defined by two major stylistic choices: the first in the tell-all narrator, and the second in the aforementioned worldbuilding. In a work with unity, these two choices would be inseparable from a book’s themes and characters, justifying themselves on every page, but they often fail to justify themselves in Furthermore. There are major dramatic moments that would be miles better without them, and that’s a terrible sign––no qualities so central to the creative vision of a book should make it suffer this much.

And Furthermore, dear reader, has the makings of an exuberant adventure. It should not have to suffer.

An Uneven Adventure in Riordan’s “The Throne of Fire”

After the somewhat scattered conflict in The Red Pyramid, the first installment of Rick Riordan’s Egyptian mythology-inspired Kane Chronicles, The Throne of Fire, its sequel, has a bit of cleaning up to do.

It’s no secret that Riordan’s series tend to start okay and end fantastic––the vast gulf in mastery between The Lightning Thief and The Last Olympian attests to it––but The Red Pyramid seemed particularly unfocused. Cycling through mentors and fetch quests as it does, it denies itself both the camaraderie of a usual quest story and a truly satisfying ending, which doesn’t bode well for The Throne of Fire, a tome of comparable length and at least as many macguffins.

If you persevered through The Red Pyramid, though, take heart: The Throne of Fire swerves cleanly away from many of its predecessor’s pitfalls, the result being a tale with both strong sinews and thrills of its own to offer, if not awe-inspiring efficiency.

In the few months since the events of The Red Pyramid, Carter and Sadie Kane, the children of famous archaeologist and secret magician Julius Kane, have set up camp at Brooklyn House, now a clandestine training facility for the next generation of sorcerers, hiding in the mortal world in plain sight. As before, the threat of total annihilation looms in the form of one chaos snake Apophis, who resides in a magical prison but gets closer by the minute to breaking free.

In order to stop him, the Kane siblings have hatched a plan to stir the sun god Ra from his aeons of slumber, but in order to do so, they must fetch the three portions of the Book of Ra, at least one from under the nose of the magical establishment, which hasn’t been too keen on our intrepid protagonists since they shook things up in book one.

As always, Riordan has buckets of fun adapting the elements of ancient lore to his style of comedy, and even if it’s not quite up to Percy Jackson‘s par (what is, honestly?), it offers the familiar, crowd-pleasing fun of an adventurous blockbuster, and with the extra burden of foundational worldbuilding and initiation already taken care of, the book moves at a brisk but practiced pace, with some extra room for the quieter, character-heavy lulls that Riordan happens to excel at.

With the new recruits at Brooklyn House featuring heavily at the beginning, though, it’s a bit of a surprise that they’re so sparse in the rest of the book. Instead of fellow magicians for companions, Riordan has Carter and Sadie seek out the remaining Book of Ra fragments with the god Bes, another mentor figure to add to the Kane Chronicles‘ extensive collection.

In execution, he’s a perfectly enjoyable addition to the traveling party, but as his part plays out at the climax, there’s a looming sacrifice that you can see coming; one that echoes, albeit faintly, an issue at the heart of The Red Pyramid. It’s a flaw that plagues many a fantasy series, especially in the middle grade and young adult categories, and it saps the magic of its narrative power with astonishing speed:

The Kane Chronicles, my friends, has a stakes problem.

So far, Riordan has only been willing to sacrifice mentor characters he’s set aside for that specific purpose, and even then, in terms of losses, he’s been rather stingy. It’s not that every fantasy novel has to come with a mountain of casualties, but if the fate of the world is at stake, you can’t expect a bulletproof cast of supporting characters to do the trick, and, furthermore, you can’t expect the toll of The Throne of Fire‘s conclusion to cut it going into book three.

Which is why, as big a change as it would’ve meant for the manuscript, it might have been better for one of the named characters from the beginning to accompany the Kane siblings on their quest for the Book of Ra…and proceed to bite it. The loss of a fellow young magician would’ve been a punishing answer to our co-protagonists’ first steps into leadership; a more forbidding final note, certainly, than the one we got.

The second installment of a trilogy will often end with a shocking defeat (think The Empire Strikes Back or Catching Fire), and with Apophis gearing up to end the world on the last page, it’s storytelling negligence on Riordan’s part to deny the trilogy its dark night of the soul right where it was most needed. Now, as big as the threat is, and as much danger as it’s meant to pose, I still don’t believe it capable of making our heroes hurt.

Luckily, however, Riordan adds the spice of earthly conflict to temper the larger celestial one. The House of Life, sorcery’s primary authority, has a Chief Lector in Michel Desjardins who is neither entirely friend nor entirely foe. In between monster fights and wild goose chases through various world cities, we get glimpses of an ancient institution fraying at the edges, its leadership in jeopardy and its priorities ill-chosen.

Though the House of Life’s woes don’t take up much of The Throne of Fire’s page time, it wouldn’t be nearly as rich without them, and a certain development near the end suggests a greater presence of this subplot in the trilogy’s concluding volume. It’s really the complexity in this institutional conflict that makes it the powerful foil to the epic good-evil apotheosis it is, and when Riordan plays it right, it hits with the same resonance, if not more.

Whether the trilogy sticks the landing remains to be seen, but with the tools at hand, Riordan has a chance to make it so. And if his stories are anything to go by, a chance is no small thing.