Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beyonders: A World Without Heros - Brandon Mull

In Beyonders, Brandon Mull sketches situations and characters that I have not often seen in modern fiction. Life and death are weighed in nearly every decision. And though the two main characters (Jason and Rachel) are completely average Americans, their character is strong and they learn the value of choosing right instead of personal gain. Of course, those kind of decision making skills are definitely not seen in mainstream American teenagers--so one might rationally ask if there is any semblance of reality in the book. But there is! Jason and Rachel make decisions at first based on their one main goal--to get back home. Their decisions to do right often coincide with their best chances of learning how to return to America. And through the book, they learn to value trust and honesty, self sacrifice, and recognize the power of doing the right thing regardless of the consequences.

I found this book completely fascinating for many reasons. The first is that the characters are very unique. Take the emperor for example. He is an evil wizard, completely invincible as far as we know. He holds power by singling out his strongest opponents and either winning them over to serve him or bribing them to stay out of his way by an invitation to "The Eternal Feast." The feast is held at a beautiful castle called Harthenham, and is essentially Heaven on Earth. The emperor provides every comfort and every beautiful thing from the bedroom, to the grounds, and of course--the food. It is essentially a prison, for no one that has ever gone there has left. But it is a prison that few people would refuse if they were given the option. With this ultimate bribe, the emperor keeps his fiercest opponents at bay. And the very few that refuse this elegant bribe on principle? Well, the emperor recognizes their strong moral character and he invites them to serve him as part of his inner circle of advisers. For those that accept there is no chance of betrayal--they basically have an eye implanted into their body, and every step and conversation is watched. For those that refuse, they are not killed--for that would be martyrdom and martyrs spawn too many new recruits. No, the emperor simply breaks them physically and mentally and then turns them loose so that all who oppose him will see how their hero suffered and failed. This is how Lyrian came to be the land without heroes.

But Jason and Rachel learn that a hero is not necessarily spectacularly strong, nor stunningly courageous, nor strikingly handsome. A hero is someone who chooses what is right no matter what. They are given this challenge, and in a world where they basically have nothing to lose, they learn true heroism. This is the main strength of this book. It shows young teenagers the value of doing good and making selfless decisions.

Now, if you look at public reviews of the book on Amazon, you'll see a lot of mediocre or even bad reviews. Some say it's not very original, some complain of too many big words, others think that the characters do not react realistically to the situations Mull sets up. But all of them say it is not as good as his Fablehaven series. Now, as someone who has never read the Fablehaven books, I consider that I am able to make an objective option of this book without comparing it to Mull's other work. I read it without any preexisting expectations.

And I would respond to the other reviewers and say that this story is 1) stunningly original. I was blown away by the amount of fun and imaginative details that Mull included in the book. They are completely created (not like anything in real life) and yet they are realistic enough to be imaginable for the reader. As I have been working on writing my own children's book, I'm extremely impressed with the amount of planning and creativity it must have taken for Brandon Mull to weave together all these elements.

For those that gripe about big words: 2) This story is for children. If you don't understand the words in this book, go back to grade school. I was actually slightly annoyed by all the "modern" words that he included. Mull would occasionally throw in words like "psycho" or "super cool" that just don't sound right in a story like this. But perhaps I react that way because I like to read the classics. And I recognize that while this story has a classic moral/ethical component, it is still geared toward modern teens. I suppose the modern lingo can help establish that the main characters are "one of us" and by comparison, readers can learn and make these hard decisions also.

The third objection that I read online was that the characters do not react realistically. 3) Perhaps these readers are defining "realistic" based on what they themselves would choose. If that is so, then a "realistic" book would make pretty poor reading. I would much prefer an "inspiring" book, like this one. However, I believe that these characters are perfectly realistic. In fact, I was astonished at how each character (even all the side characters that have relatively minor roles) responds to a situation based on the incentives that are set up for him. And it's not just a question of "what do I want and how do I get it?" Their responses are clearly based on what they value, which is a whole slough of things: often comfort, wealth, stability, respect, opportunity, abundance, safety, etc... And different characters respond differently to these things--for instance, Jason and Rachel consider the opportunity of getting home as much more valuable than the opportunity for living out their lives in Lyrian in safety and abundance. Some characters lose their self-respect to gain outside respect, and some (like the Blind King in his rundown castle) have nothing left but their self-respect. No, these characters are very real, even in how they differ from each other.

All I can say is that if this is a poor book compared to the Fablehaven series, then that series must be absolutely phenomenal. I plan to go check it out soon and make my own opinion. At any rate, Beyonders: A World Without Heroes certainly stands on its own as an excellent book, and I am eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series.

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