Five Kingdoms, Brandon Mull’s third major series, contains no problematic material and may entertain young readers, but it’s not his best work. Populated by flat characters, predictable plots, and distressingly over-written and under-edited prose, the series possesses little of the charm and magic we saw in Fablehaven. Meanwhile, all of Fablehaven’s literary limitations are on display in exaggerated proportions.
The series starts off promisingly when several tweenagers are kidnapped while visiting a haunted house in their neighborhood. Cole Randolph, who manages to evade capture, bravely follows his captured friends through a portal that leads to another world. There he discovers a parallel universe governed by a tyrannical monarch, and by several versions of a kind of magic known as shaping. Gradually he learns that the world is divided into five realms, the titular five kingdoms, each with its own variation on shaping magic. He resolves to save his friends, and to somehow return to his home.
With such an interesting premise, and with a writer who’d previously demonstrated his ability to produce relatively well-drawn characters, to draw an enchanting world with a sense of depth, and to manage a colossal, unpredictable, and gripping plot, it’s difficult to understand why this series was so unsatisfying. Difficult to understand why, but not how. Unfortunately, the series’ specific weaknesses are easy to identify.
We could start with its obnoxious structure. There are five kingdoms, and there are five princesses in hiding, each of whom has a unique magical ability that has been stripped away. Separated from their owners, these powers crystallize into magical beings, each of which will have to be discovered, and sometimes defeated. Once this has been established in the first book, we know it will happen in the other four as well, which leaves no suspense or interest, other than the predictable revelation that this or that conspicuous magical entity that keeps popping up in the book is actually just this is or that princess’s shaping power.
Then there is the magic of shaping, which quickly becomes an annoyance. Good fantasy writers know, as Mull knew when he wrote Fablehaven, that the entire excitement of magic in a fantasy revolves around the drama of the possible. A writer establishes a set of simple but wonderful realities with law-like consequences. The magical laws should be attractive or ring poetically true in-and-of-themselves, and yet their differences from our world demonstrate the essential arbitrariness of physical reality as we know it. Fantastic worlds, to paraphrase Chesterton, show us that certain things might have been different, but some things must always be true. Done correctly, the plot itself depends on the workings of magic, and magical plot twists don’t seem like arbitrary rule-changes; they deepen the world, or convey a metaphysical truth. In contrast, the forms of shaping native to each of the five kingdoms are ridiculously complicated, consistently arbitrary, and riddled with apparent exceptions. From the beginning of each book till its end, Mull almost never stops explaining all the rules, sub-rules, and variations to all of the different kinds of shaping. This constant exposition comes via endless conversations, which brings us to all of the subject of wordiness.
These books are populated almost entirely by dialog. Some of the dialog is external, some of it is internal. Sometimes a wise character explains things to an ignorant character — dumping loads of exposition in the process — and sometimes a character ruminates endlessly on every thought or feeling he is having, about himself, the situation, or the very information that was just conveyed in a dialog. In most cases, Cole is on the receiving end of all of the exposition, and in most cases, Cole is the one ruminating and reacting and ruminating about his reactions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that upwards of sixty percent of the the text is taken up with talking, considering, and emoting.
As an individual, Cole is also extremely thin. He has little discernible character, nothing that makes him come alive as an entity. He is suddenly heroic, when the plot needs him to be, but for the most part he is a collection of reactions that communicates itself in monosyllabic sentences when it is not being constantly instructed or complimented by the slightly rounder characters that surround it. It is a given that he is one special kid, because the author says so, and important character are always telling him so. It is a given that he confront baddies and protect his friends whenever the author requires it, but for the most part he is little more than a wandering plot point.
And the plot itself is little more than wandering. Cole goes from one place to another, encountering various spectacles. He experiences an obstacle, gets some information, and moves on to the next location. Apart from a few moments, there’s almost never a sense of being caught in a story, feeling the tension of not knowing what will happen next, how a problem will be resolved, nor even a feeling of momentum. Cole walks around trying to find his friends and accomplish small tasks for the length of five books. In the meantime, Mull conjures up a constant flow of distractions to keep the reader engaged while Cole goes about his predictable quest. The majority of the drama arises not from the movement of the plot itself, nor from some kind of genuine character development, but simply from a constant flow of juicy details about whatever realm he currently inhabits. Most problematic of all, since neither the logic of the worlds nor the rules of shaping are intuitive or intrinsically engaging, and since both are complicated, ad hoc, and incomprehensible, the distinction between exposition (setup), and revelation is completely blurred. Everything is a big reveal and a small reveal; there’s no sense of what’s really important, and even in those rare cases where the reader catches and begins to ride the story’s momentum, Mull immediately pops in to tell him what it all means and how everybody feels about it.
There are some positive aspects of the series. The author clearly wants to write books that teach and reinforce good values. There’s a lot of personal coaching and life lessons, many of which are good and useful. From a parental perspective, it’s nice to have a series that has no edgy or problematic content, and which supports basic family and civic values. The series is very imaginative, and quite popular with grade school readers, who are able to get a lot of enjoyment purely out the encounter fascinating scenarios and fantastic beings. To paraphrase author Neil Gaiman, when children and adults read the same book, they are not really reading the same book. Several of my students really enjoy the series, and, since they are harmless and reinforce some good values, that is a point in the books’ favor. Yet one cannot help but feel that the series was rushed, and not fully thought out. It feels like a casserole composed of too many ingredients, many of them, perhaps, tasty, but not properly assembled. There is too much and too little of everything, and the dish feels like an amalgamation rather than a coherent whole. Charity, and considerations of the varieties in peoples’ tastes, allow me to give this value-conscious series three out of five stars, but the books failed to interest this sympathetic reader. Brandon Mull can do better.
- Would you have liked to see Cole prove himself by actually completing fifty missions with the Sky Raiders? Why or why not?
- Should Cole have been the main viewpoint character, or would you like to have seen more of the story told from Mira or Jace’s points of view?
- Of the magical embodiments of the Pemberton sisters’ power, which was your favorite?
- What was your favorite form of shaping, and why?
- Which of the five kingdoms did you prefer, and why?6) Compare Cole Randolph to Seth Sorenson (from Fablehaven). Which one is more of an agent, someone whose actions drive the plot. Make the same comparison between Miracle Pemberton and Kendra Sorenson.