When I saw the cover of Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, the first book of the Evil Librarian series by Brandon Sanderson, I immediately suspected that it was yet another poor-quality Harry Potter knock off. Having read the entire series to date, I am, despite the saying, confirmed in my judgment of the book by its cover. This is the story of a tormented thirteen-year-old orphan who has lived most of his life in the care of foster parents, all the time unaware of a magical world in which he has unwittingly been playing the part of savior-yet-to-come. On his thirteenth birthday, he is suddenly introduced to a more exciting world, hidden in plain sight, in which he gradually discovers his powers and his “heroism.” Sound familiar? It should. Though Sanderson makes veiled criticisms of elements of the Harry Potter series, his own work bears a striking resemblance to it in its basic elements. While these similarities are obvious from the first few pages, it is soon evident that The Evil Librarian series lacks the carefully-crafted world, interesting characters, and plot of Harry Potter. The most significant difference between the two series is that here we are subjected to continual sidebar monologues in which the protagonist, named Alcatraz, invariably manages to manifest the exact brand of snarky, sarcastic narcissism that parents everywhere in America would love to excise from their children’s character. The story moves away from its Harry Potteresque beginning and quickly settles into a rhythm of zany action and quirky humor. The first four books of the series are largely harmless, but the fifth book in the series culminates in events that prevent me from recommending this series to anyone.
The series begins with the narrator breaking the 4th wall by explaining that he is in fact the protagonist, Alcatraz Smedry, and that he is using the pen name Brandon Sanderson to prevent evil librarians from censoring the book. Each chapter begins with similar direct address commentaries on previous events that contain hints of events to come. While the intensely cheeky and sarcastic tone of the protagonist may put off many readers and parents, from within these rants come bright moments of spontaneous humor and something resembling wisdom. These bright moments are unfortunately couched in tedious disingenuous self-deprecation that read like an angsty teen fishing for a compliment.
In the first few chapters, Alcatraz discovers that he has been living in the portion of the world that has come under the dictatorial control of the evil librarians, a group that controls its population with misinformation so pervasive that inhabitants are not even aware of the global struggle that is ongoing. Those who resist the librarians live on one of three Free Kingdom continents. Though these enormous new fictional continents are sitting in plain sight in the middle of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the librarians have prevented common people from discovering them with the clever use of propaganda and brainwashing.
The author has tried to create a world that falls between the internally succinct style of the magical world that is accomplished in the Harry Potter series and the cheekily absurd science-fiction world of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The world into which Alcatraz is emerging is playfully nonsensical. The topsy-turvy physics and logic which govern this technologically-driven alternate world are put off balance by the introduction of largely unexplained idiosyncratic magic. At this point in the series the magic is not in any way tied to deeper spiritual realities. The magic seems to be a loosely defined mechanism that acts as the deus ex machina every time the author has written himself into a corner. Later in the series, it is hinted that there may be a more profound connection between magic and technology, but as of the end of the fifth book it has not yet emerged.
In the early chapters, Alcatraz is informed by his estranged grandfather that he is from the Smedry family, a distinguished line of rebels with magical powers, who have been fighting the evil librarians for generations. Alcatraz also discovers that his mother is one of the librarians and in fact was watching over him his whole life, but not necessarily for the sake of Alcatraz’s safety. The dysfunctional family of Alcatraz becomes a theme of the series. Early in the first book we are also introduced to Bastille, a thirteen-year-old female member of a knightly order assigned to protect members of the Smedry family. She is perpetually cynical, sarcastic and aggressive towards Alcatraz, setting up a typical playground romance narrative that builds throughout the series. Unfortunately, the characters in this story can seem like flat literary stereotypes at times.
More troubling than the lack of originality of the characters is the uninspiring “heroism” of Alcatraz. He routinely assures the reader that he is not a good person and that in his moments of daring he did not really think about what he was doing. Even before their second or third iteration these lines begin to smell of false humility and narcissism. The protagonist informs us that his intention in writing this book is to dispel the rumors that he is a hero, but the overall impression given is that he is well pleased with himself and that all of his choices are justifiable.
To be fair, the author seems to have no intention of producing a meaningful literary work. It is meant to be entertaining and at its brighter moments it is that. Spontaneous and absurd wit gleans out routinely and brings a smile upon occasion.
The series largely continues in the same vein for the next three books in the series. Each book in the series brings new adventures that are punctuated by one or two significant movements in the larger arch of the story. The monologues with the protagonist/narrator intensify in goofiness as the series progresses. Besides being kitsch, the series seems relatively harmless for the first four books. In the fifth book some disturbing elements come to light.
I give particular attention to book five, The Dark Talent, as it stands apart from the rest in a negative and not insignificant way. The fifth book brings many similar dialogues and action sequences, this time centered around an assault on the librarian headquarters in Washington D.C. In the last quarter of the book a number of disturbing comments come out during the monologues, and the climax of the book is gruesome and disturbing, particularly for a book intended for young adults.
There is a hint of subjectivist principles (the notion that each person’s subjective notion of reality has an equal claim to truth as any other) in Alcatraz’s explanation of how Smedry talents work. They do not work according to reality as it is, but according to how the individual Smedry, using a power, perceives reality to be. While not openly commenting on the nature of truth as a whole, this section hardly supports the objective understanding of truth that founds the psyche of a sane rational being. Organized religion receives a more direct critique later on in the series.
The topic of religion in the Free Kingdoms comes up, and the author explains that he will not talk about religion, as it is a sure way to provoke controversy. Saying that one is not going to comment on religion because it is controversial is in effect making a statement to young readers that religion is a fundamentally divisive thing. This is far from remaining neutral on the topic of organized religion. It would have been better to just say nothing on the matter.
While the comment on religion was an unsettling element to throw in casually so near the end of the series, the climax itself is even more so. Since discovering that his parents are alive, divorced, and on opposing sides of the global conflict, Alcatraz has wrestled with the question of whether his parents are on the side of good. In the climax, the evil librarians have Alcatraz and his father in their power and they wish to steal the secret of the Smedry talents. They discover that in order to do so they need to sacrifice a Smedry on an altar and somehow — we aren’t sure how — use the blood. The cheesy playfulness of the series is brought to a crashing halt. Suddenly, there is a dark and grotesque feel to the narrative. The introduction of gruesome cult sacrifice spoiled the series for me.
This is not the last book of the series as the narrator indicated earlier in the book, however. We are left with the promise of a final book in the series that will explain how the evil librarians will be defeated in the end. From what the author has set up thus far in the series, it is likely that the link between magic and technology will be explained, Alcatraz will be reconciled with his mother and father, the romance between Alcatraz and Bastille will be defined, and the mystery behind the Smedry talents will finally be revealed. There is little that the author can do at this point to recover this series after the very disappointing fifth book.
In summation, this series has bright moments of humor and creativity that are suffocated by sarcastic dialogues, cynical undertones, grotesque cult rituals, and an overall meaninglessness that make it hard to justify reading. If parents are looking for a story that will present a heroic role model for their boys to imitate, this is not the series for them.
- Is Alcatraz serious when he says that he is not a hero?
- What kinds of characteristics mark a hero as a hero?
- Can a hero have flaws?
- The librarians keep the people oppressed by carefully controlling what information people are given access to. Is there a way we can we tell whether a news source is giving us an honest and balanced account of events?
- Are religions divisive or inclusive?
- The peoples of the free nations have different laws that permit people as young as thirteen to drive a car and to participate in the front lines of battle. Should this be allowed in America?