“Wizards, mutants, and spies! Oh, my!”
Looking for some new reading material?
Once upon a time, I posted recommendations for three different novel series for those who like books about no-nonsense, highly-skilled, ex-military/intelligence, real tough-guy types. This time, I would like to suggest something quite different — well, mostly. Namely, it is my “guilty pleasure” to read some “teen” novels, and I have representatives from three subgenres that some of you might like — assuming you don’t already read them, of course. (Yes, I am a 40-something guy who occasionally reads “Young Adult” books. Got a problem with that? 😎 ) I know the first one will be familiar to you, unless you’ve been living in seclusion and without internet access for the past 17 years. (In which case, welcome back to civilization!) The other two, though, may have escaped your notice….
A few years ago, I finally decided to find out what all the hubbub was around the Harry Potter series. I have no kids and no nieces/nephews old enough to read, so it hadn’t been an “issue”. Sure, Potter & Hogwarts were on my radar, so to speak, but I had plenty of other stuff I was reading. In fact, I think I was just getting back into sci-fi/fantasy after a prolonged absence, so I was reading a few classics and some Star Trek stuff. Anyway, I decided to read the books (in order, of course), following each a few weeks later with its respective movie adaptation. It’s taking me awhile, since I read slowly and I read (and watch) a lot of other stuff in between. I have read six of the Potter books, now, and watched their associated films, so I have one book and two movies to go.
I admit, I was quite taken with the series from the get-go. In a way, it took me back to my childhood, reading about young “detectives” discovering odd and/or amazing things, getting into trouble, learning lessons, etc. Aside from the comic books, this would include everything from the Sugar Creek Gang to Tom Swift. Of course, none of them were wizards-in-training. I really like most of the characters in the Potter books, too — even the ones I love to hate.
As a conservative Christian, I am always quite leery of stuff that portrays witchcraft/sorcery in a positive light, since there are clear, biblical warnings against it. However, I realize that magic and the supernatural can also be used in allegory and other fictional genres as a tool or backdrop for exciting stories that also tell morality tales and good lessons for young(?) readers. They often include strong Christian themes like faith, love, integrity, personal sacrifice, resisting temptation, redemption, etc. Such is the case for beloved authors like Tolkien, MacDonald, Lewis, L’Engle, et al., and I think J.K. Rowling has done pretty well with the method, too. However, as with those others, I recommend becoming familiar with the books yourself before allowing your children to read them; then, enjoy discussing the stories with them, any lessons to be learned, and any added cautions or reminders you feel necessary.
The Michael Vey series by #1 bestselling author Richard Paul Evans is a bit more like the Hardy Boys… that is, if the Hardy Boys weren’t brothers — Michael’s best friend is a computer-nerd named Ostin Liss — and one of them had mutant powers and they “teamed up” with other electrically-powered kids against an evil corporation with their own band of mutant teens. I am currently reading the third book (Battle of the Ampere) out of the five published as of this writing. (Michael Vey 6: Fall of Hades is due for release next week, with a seventh entry planned to conclude the series.)
The Vey character is just an average kid with a crush on a pretty girl, except that he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, which makes him even more of an outcast. When Michael suddenly discovers that he has electrically-based mutant abilities, his life takes a left turn. Next thing he knows, he and Ostin are on the run from some sinister characters — including some of those other kids I mentioned — who want to either kill Michael or make him join them. Meanwhile, Michael and Ostin are trying to figure out how he (and the others) got their powers in the first place. In essence, it’s a story of teens making difficult decisions and learning life-lessons, as they deal with their mutant powers and those who want to control them. Fun stuff!
Now, Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider is sort of a cross between the Hardy Boys — except there is only one of him — and James Bond. More like James Bond, Jr., except that it was actually Alex’s uncle/guardian who died while in Her Majesty’s Service. His uncle’s bosses at Britain’s MI6 rope Alex into going undercover for them, and that’s the beginning of a long and dangerous series of adventures for our young hero. I have only read three of the ten in the series, and the orphaned Alex is still a somewhat reluctant operative.
Like Michael Vey, Rider is a regular kid in his mid-teens who suddenly finds himself doing some pretty grown-up stuff, even putting his life at risk. Generally speaking, he handles himself quite admirably. It helps, of course, that in the few years he spent with his uncle (who never told Alex he was a spy, of course), he got to travel and learn a few helpful skills that come in handy during his missions. He gets a little training from his handlers but nothing extensive. (He isn’t a full-fledged spy, after all, and he isn’t supposed to be doing much that is very dangerous. Three books in, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.) Naturally, for each mission he is provided two or three “devices” from the science division to aid him — i.e., Bond-type gadgets, such as a Gameboy that doubles as a geiger counter or bubble gum that functions as plastic explosive. Again, young Alex is sometimes forced to make difficult decisions and deal emotionally with some harsh realities, like death and betrayal, much as any secret agent would who has a fairly developed moral code.
Despite the youthful protagonists of these series, I have found the writing to be engaging and the characters likable. I think part of the appeal is that the central characters are not “cool kids”, not part of the “in crowd”. (Reminds me of certain popular superheroes in the comics, e.g., Peter Parker / Spider-Man.) As fans of this genre(s), we know that sometimes the characters can be two-dimensional and the plots can be really stupid or over-the-top. Aside from peripheral characters, the only ones who come close to these problems in the above series would be a couple of the main villains. However, the stories are still quite enjoyable.
So, if you haven’t read them and are looking for something new to try, what have you got to lose?