Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book of the Week: THE MAGNIFICENT 12: THE CALL by Michael Grant

Today we’re chatting about The Magnificent 12: The Call by Michael Grant. I’d like to tell you he’ll be here on Thursday to do one of our writer interviews, but it’s looking like that’s not going to work out after all.  Mr. Grant, if you’re reading this,we’d love to have you by anytime to face the 7 Questions and the invitation remains open.

And now let’s talk about this book, starting with the opening lines:

David MacAvory—whose friends called him Mack—was not an unlikely hero. He was an impossible hero.
First, there was the fact that he was only twelve years old. And then there was the fact that he was not especially big, strong, kind, or good-looking.
Plus he was scared. Scared of what? Quite a list of things… (what follows is a list of things David is afraid of—MG Ninja)

…So this was not a twelve-year-old you’d expect to become one of the greatest heroes in human
history—not the person you’d expect would try and save the world from the greatest evil it had ever faced.
But that’s our story.
One thing to remember: most heroes end up dead.

Isn’t that a swell opening? I think it is. Right away, Grant tells us who the story is about, sets the tone for the book so the reader knows at once whether or not this is a novel for her, and he gives us a preview of what sort of story we can expect to read. You can’t ask a book opening to do much more than that. I know many of us writers sometimes struggle with finding places in the narrative to work in important exposition about the protagonist, particularly their age. I’ve seen writers go to all sorts of weird lengths to work this information in, but I prefer Grant’s method of just coming right out and stating it. Keeps things simple. And as you may have guessed from the title, the number 12 is of some importance in this book.

The Magnificent 12: The Call is another book like The Smokey Corridor that is so involved it defies summary. Mack, David MacAvory’s preferred name, is just a regular adolescent dealing with bully issues at Richard Gere Middle School (actually the name of the school) until one day a magical old man in a black robe shows up in the hall and freezes time to save him from an apparent bully attack. The old man tells Mack:

“You have foes of which you dream not,” the old man rasped. “Foes which, if you only knew of them, your blood would freeze like a mountain stream in winter and your hands would tremble and lose their strength.”

Mack found this alarming. “Hey! I don’t have any enemies. I’m not looking for trouble. I have a math test.”
“We choose not our enemies. Your foes are the foes of your blood. For in your veins runs the blood true of the Magnifica.”
“Is that Latin?”
“You are called, young hero. Called! To save the world from the nameless evil.”
“What’s the name of this nameless evil?” Mack asked.
“The Pale Queen! But we name her not.”
“You just did.”

The old man informs Mack that he must save the world from The Pale Queen, who is about to rise again after 3000 years, and I think you'll enjoy his description of her:

“So you tied up this Pale Queen for three thousand years.”

“Exactly. Forever. Or so we thought. It turns out three thousand years is still not forever. And now the three thousand years has all but run its course. In just a few months the Dread Foe will be loosed in all her fury, all her rage, all her sphincter-clenching, heart-clutching, throat-gobbling, spit-drying, blood-freezing, bowel-loosening terror!”

I think these passages tell you just about everything you need to know regarding the plot as well as the tone. The Magnificent 12: The Call is a long way from serious. I would call it satire, but the only thing I can pinpoint its satirizing is itself. Michael Grant is having a laugh and he invites us to join him. Here is how Mack and his friend and former bully Stefan react to the news of their mission:

“Where are you going to go?” Stefan asked.

Mack turned and walked backward, holding his hands out in a helpless gesture. “I guess I’m going to save the world.”
“Yeah?” Stephan said. “Okay, then; I’ll go, too.”
The assistant principal stepped out of his office as they passed. “Just where do you think you’re going, Mr. MacAvoy?”
“Saving the world, sir.”

And now I’ll risk another diversion into movies to illustrate the one and only point I want to make about craft this week. One of the greatest lessons I ever learned about storytelling came from watching The Lost World: Jurassic Park. There are a lot of reasons that film was not as good as the first JP and I could write another post just about them, but I want to focus on one scene: the scene in which the two tyrannosauruses knock a research trailer containing Dr. Malcom, his girlfriend, and that guy from Swingers over the edge of a cliff. The first Jurassic Park is a classic and a genuinely tense film, especially for younger viewers who will never forget the first time they saw the T-Rex crash through the top of a jeep and try to eat the children inside. The second film is directed by Steven Spielberg and should be every bit as good and isn’t because it looses credibility about halfway through.

In the crucial scene when Dr. Malcom and his science homies are hanging over the cliff in a trailer facing a fate of either plunging to their deaths or being chomped by a T-Rex, while their other homie is trying as hard as he can to pull them back up to safety, they make jokes. “What do you need,” that guy from The West Wing calls down to them and in response they call out orders for fast food and laugh. And like that, the scene lost this viewer for the rest of the film. People being attacked by dinosaurs are frightened out of their minds the way the children were in the first film, not laughing in the face of death. If Dr. Malcom and his crew aren’t convinced they are really in danger, the viewer isn’t convinced. Why I should I be concerned they are going to die when they aren’t? Also, how much of a threat can raptors really be if little girls can kick them into glass and kill them? But I digress.

Enough Alan Grant, let’s get back to Michael Grant. There are plenty of monsters in his book and Mack only rarely seems put out by them. During one scene, a monster attacks Mack’s plane and throws him out of it, and yet he and his buddy Stefan continue to make jokes. Mack plunges to his death still cracking jokes. In fact, he only has a handful of scenes in which his reactions match reader expectations the whole novel. Most of his reactions to the increasingly weird scenarios he faces are like his above reaction to learning he has to save the world. Mack is cool and sardonic, and only somewhat interested in the newest threat to his life. It’s almost as though he is aware he is the main character and therefore likely to make it through to the end of the series.

So how is it that Mack’s joking during monster attacks does not ruin his story the way Dr. Malcom’s joking ruined The Lost World? The answer is tonal consistency. In the film, we’re presented with somewhat realistic characters that up until the key trailer scene have reactions to the narrative that are believable for them and then at the crucial moment they shift to unbelievable.

Mack is never a realistic character. Note, this is not the same as his not being a believable or relatable character. Mack is believable for a boy who inhabits the world of this story filled with comedy and farce and his reactions are consistent throughout the book. He is not especially concerned when he comes home from school to find a golem, a creature of shape shifting mud, has shifted to look like him. He takes it in stride the same way he takes the news of his being responsible for saving the world or that a monster has attacked his plane. Grant starts his story with a tone of farce and maintains it to the novel’s end. In fact, were Mack to suddenly behave realistically, that would throw the reader out of the story.

Here is the way Grant opens a chapter late in the book that would totally be out of place in almost any other sort of book, and yet totally works here because it is consistant with the chapters that came before it:

One of the rules of Great Literature is: show, don’t tell. But one of the other rules of Great Literature is: don’t go on and on with boring scenes where nothing happens but a lot of talking.
So let’s just have a quick glance at what Jarrah told Mack and Stefan on the way into stunning Sydney Harbour, and then move on, shall we?

If any other writer in any other book opened a chapter that way, we might scoff and think "this writer can't be serious." But in the case of Michael Grant, we know he's not serious. He hasn't been serious yet. That's the whole point. And this passage is fun and funny in part because we have no expectation it would be otherwise.

By the way, the shape-shifting golem is my favorite character in the book and I can’t finish this review without telling you about him. The golem takes over Mack’s life pretending to be him while Mack is on his quest to save the world from The Pale Queen. He writes to Mack to let him know how his life as a human boy is going, and the golem’s messages are absolutely hysterical. I don’t want to ruin them for you, so I’ll just share an early one by way of example:


DEAR MACK,
TODAY I ATE PIZZA. BUT I REALIZED THAT I DO NOT HAVE A STOMACH AND HAD TO SPIT IT OUT ON THE TABLE. LATER I USED A SPOON TO REACH INSIDE MY MOUTH AND DIG OUT A STOMACH. I PLACED THE MUD CAREFULLY IN THE TOILED AND FLUSHED MANY TIMES. NOW THERE IS WATER ON THE FLOOR AND ALSO ON THE STAIRS. I THINK MOM NOTICED.
YOUR FRIEND,
GOLEM


DEAR MACK,
I HAD AN EXCELLENT DAY AT SCHOOL. THE WOMAN CALLED MS. CHAPMAN ASKED ME IF I WAS STILL DEVOURING BOOKS. SHE SMILED SO I KNEW THIS WAS A GOOD THING. I SAID THAT I WAS. I DEVOURED ONE FOR HER AND SHE STOPPED SMILING. THEN I MET THE MAN CALLED ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL FURMAN, WHO ASKED ME WHAT MY MAJOR MALFUNCTION WAS. I EXPLAINED TO HIM THAT I CANNOT MALFUNCTION BECAUSE I AM A SUPERNATURAL CREATURE MADE OF MUD. HE TOLD ME TO GO AWAY.
YOUR FRIEND,
GOLEM

And once again I see I have rambled on for too long and now we’re out of time. To sum it all up, The Magnificent 12: The Call is a very funny little book you can curl up with and have a good time. It’s an especially good read for boys in the same vein of a Mel Brooks/David Zucker comedy, not unlike the Melvin Beederman Superhero books. Don’t forget to check back Saturday when we’ll have literary agent Kate Epstein here and check by on Thursday if you haven’t had enough of my rambling yet:) I’ll leave you now with some of my other favorite passages from The Magnificent 12: The Call:

Possibly because his eyes were like translucent blue marbles. Not blue with a little black dot in the middle and a lot of white all around, but a sort of smeary blue that covered iris, pupil, and all the other eye parts. As if he had started with normal blue eyes, but they’d been pureed in a blender and then poured back into his eyeholes.

The stoners had a bully, but he tended to lose focus and so was not very effective at terrorizing people.

The bell rang, ending the school day, and kids exploded from classrooms like buckshot from a shotgun.

The word huh was roughly one-third of Stefan’s vocabulary.

This was the most anticipated moment in the history of Richard Gere Middle School. Imagine the degree of anticipation that might have greeted the simultaneous release of an Iron Man movie, a brand-new sequel to a Harry Potter book, and albums by the top three bands all rolled into one happy, nervous, “OMG, I totally can’t wait to see this!” moment.

Mack screamed. Screamed like a little girl.


STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this book tremendously! I agree, the farcical elements add rather than detract.

    I have a signed copy that I'm giving away on my own blog (ends today, Wednesday, at midnight)

    http://charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com/2010/09/magnificant-12-signed-giveaway.html

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  2. I'll have to check out the book. I've read GONE by Michel and really enjoyed it, but haven't read futher than that.

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  3. Love your superhero riffs, Ninja.

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