I had not read Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series of fantasy books for young readers, but like much that has come out since the rise of Harry Potter, you knew it fell somewhere between that series and the more adult fantasy of say J.R.R. Tolkien. As a reader of this genre, I’ve become pretty critical of writers attempts at World Building this genre demands. Rowling was able to create a universe that was interesting, fun for all ages, tinged with a bit of darkness. She was very smart to let the series, as it progressed, to become more adult.
As I read Beyonders (and the only reason, let’s be honest I read it was because I got an ARC at the store), it has all the usual fantasy tropes, and it does have a bit of darkness to it, especially if this is designed for readers 10 and up. While the violence is spread out over its 446 pages, it does contain passages that you don’t usually see in the age group, such as characters torn to bits by dogs, or the torture of Jason, main character, with a venomous snake and a sensory deprivation chamber (and clad in only a slim sort of loin cloth).
Jason Walker, our hero, is earnest, brave to the point (at times I felt) of stupidity, but charming none the less. The story revolves around him stumbling into a parallel universe of Lyrian, where he encounters a land devoid of no heroes, as the evil Maldor rules the world. As he tries to find his way home, he becomes involved with Galloran, the last man who attempted to destroy Maldor with the Word (an ancient phrase that will undo the evil). Seeing potential in Jason, Galloran convinces the earnest teen to journey through the lands in search of all the syllables that make up the Word. He also encounters Rachel, a girl who is also from his world. Together, they head out on a perilous journey to find a way home and defeat Maldor.
So, while Mull hits all the fantasy buttons, why does it not work? First, perhaps, he borrows so much from other works like The Lord of the Rings series, Homer’s The Odyssey, Harry Potter and even Percy Jackson (I was reminded so much of how Jason and Rachel’s repartee where like Percy and Annabelle’s) that the story falls flat. Rachel, a much more interesting character, gets left behind in the action for some reason that is not fully explained (though you get the sense that women in this universe are second-class citizens as much as they are in our world) and I never believed that Jason, at age 13, spoke or acted like a 13 year-old. His actions, his thoughts, his speech pattern clearly dictate that he is more adult than a teen.
As the beginning of a trilogy, the story is not resolved, and characters like Jason and Rachel are left with cliffhanger situations until the next book. The series will work for the tweens, as long as they expect nothing new from the genre, because it is not the next step in the evolutionary process of young-adult fantasy that Harry Potter was or, even, Percy Jackson.