Alcatraz Versus The Knights of Crystallia: This proves I’m not YAnymore

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewschildren's YA fantasy book review Brandon Sanderson Alcatraz Versus The Knights of CrystalliaAlcatraz Versus The Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson

Alcatraz versus The Knights of Crystallia is Brandon Sanderson’s third book in this YA series and I have several confessions to make. One is that I haven’t read the first two Alcatraz books. The second is that I am not Y. Not even close. Usually, I don’t feel that hinders my reviews of YA books. But as I read much of Alcatraz, I started to wonder if I’d become the old guy in a bathrobe yelling “Get off my lawn ya lousy kids!” while waving a hairy-knuckled fist in the offenders’ general direction. Maybe, gasp, I just didn’t get the “Y” in YA anymore.

What tipped me off? Maybe the occasional reference to farts or “potty breaks,” the character who thinks curses in the Hushworld (our world) are phrases like “farting barf-faced poop” or “explosive diarrhea.” Maybe the self-aware references to how “annoying” the main character knew he was being, or the self-aware references to being a story or the self-aware direct addresses to the reader. Maybe the constant breaks in narrative.

In any case, what I mostly felt like during all this wasn’t that I was reading a YA book but reading a book targeted at a YA audience, which somehow doesn’t seem quite the same to me. More specifically, a book targeted at a male YA audience or at least what an adult imagines a male YA audience is.

But, perhaps I am the old guy on the porch. Maybe this is what a YA audience wants. It is, after all, the third book in the series, so Brandon Sanderson must be doing something right. But to be honest, mostly the ADD nature of the story combined with the “potty” talk just wearied and annoyed me. The plot is a whirlwind made more chaotic by the narrator’s constant intrusions (“LOOK OVER THERE”, “Yes, this is foreshadowing”) and silly jokes. The humor, the breaks, and the whole persona of the main character felt forced and crafted.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhich is too bad because underneath all the noise meant to attract (I assume) young males were the fixings of a decent story and solid characters and some thoughtful looks at subjects such as fame and self-esteem. Even some of the jokes were funny, save that they were overshadowed by the three that had just occurred and the three that followed almost immediately after. By the end, when the adolescent fireworks were toned down, I felt myself actually becoming interested in the story and what happened to the characters, whereas earlier I mostly wanted him to stop yelling at me.

I can’t recommend this book because I simply didn’t enjoy most of my time reading it, despite some good moments. But I also, for perhaps the first time, feel much less sure about not recommending it. I can’t imagine many people enjoying it, but the book also made me wonder if I can imagine anymore what a 12-yr-old boy does enjoy. After all, I also don’t get Twitter or The Farting Dog books. The list, I’m afraid, of things I don’t get is getting frighteningly long…

So: not recommended, but feel free to have your 12-yr-old take it for a spin. If he likes it, just think of me now and then on that porch. In my bathrobe.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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  1. I grew up reading Roald Dahl and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth…do they still write books like that for kids? What happened to stimulating the imagination along with expanding vocabulary? Oh god, does this mean I’m getting old? Oh man this sucks…

  2. Justin, take a look at Bill’s review list. He’s read lots of YA and has ranked it there. There are several series that he really likes. Also, take a look at the kids page.

  3. I love most of what Sanderson writes. However, I’m not sure continuing the Alcatraz series was a great idea, artistically. The first book was two things, and I can highly recommend it: First, it was a fun fantasy adventure with a good sense of humor; Second, it was snarky commentary on writing fantasy novels and the art of writing in general. Hilarious.

    The problem was, continuing that kind of self-referential humor indefinitely grows tired. It just doesn’t work for a series, so he had to transition to something else–a more standard fantasy novel–and it didn’t work as well for me in the second book. I haven’t gone back to try the third yet, but don’t let the third turn you off from the first. “Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians” was very fun.

    Andrew Cannon

  4. Andrew,
    Thanks for the info. Between my belief that Sanderson is quite a good writer and your comments on book one, especially the “writing about writing” aspect, I’ll give it a shot.

  5. Join the club Justin. We meet in a dark, dank underground cavern with no lights so as not to see the visual evidence of our ever increasing age. We dress in bathrobes, slosh our favorite drink around (which of course isn’t as good as they used to make it), and clear our throats a lot while complaining. Should I mark you down for Tuesdays and Thursdays?

    Phantom Tollbooth–mmmmmmmmmm

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