The Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson
The Knights of Crystallia (formerly published as Alcatraz Versus The Knights of Crystallia) is Brandon Sanderson’s third book in this Middle Grade (MG) / Young Adult (YA) series and I have several confessions to make. One is that I haven’t read the first two Alcatraz books. The second is that I am not Y. Not even close. Usually, I don’t feel that hinders my reviews of YA books. But as I read much of The Knights of Crystallia, I started to wonder if I’d become the old guy in a bathrobe yelling “Get off my lawn ya lousy kids!” while waving a hairy-knuckled fist in the offenders’ general direction. Maybe, gasp, I just didn’t get the “Y” in YA anymore.
What tipped me off? Maybe the occasional reference to farts or “potty breaks,” the character who thinks curses in the Hushworld (our world) are phrases like “farting barf-faced poop” or “explosive diarrhea.” Maybe the self-aware references to how “annoying” the main character knew he was being, or the self-aware references to being a story or the self-aware direct addresses to the reader. Maybe the constant breaks in narrative.
In any case, what I mostly felt like during all this wasn’t that I was reading a YA book but reading a book targeted at a YA audience, which somehow doesn’t seem quite the same to me. More specifically, a book targeted at a male YA audience or at least what an adult imagines a male YA audience is.
But, perhaps I am the old guy on the porch. Maybe this is what a YA audience wants. It is, after all, the third book in the series, so Brandon Sanderson must be doing something right. But to be honest, mostly the ADD nature of the story combined with the “potty” talk just wearied and annoyed me. The plot is a whirlwind made more chaotic by the narrator’s constant intrusions (“LOOK OVER THERE”, “Yes, this is foreshadowing”) and silly jokes. The humor, the breaks, and the whole persona of the main character felt forced and crafted.
Which is too bad because underneath all the noise meant to attract (I assume) young males were the fixings of a decent story and solid characters and some thoughtful looks at subjects such as fame and self-esteem. Even some of the jokes were funny, save that they were overshadowed by the three that had just occurred and the three that followed almost immediately after. By the end, when the adolescent fireworks were toned down, I felt myself actually becoming interested in the story and what happened to the characters, whereas earlier I mostly wanted him to stop yelling at me.
I can’t recommend this book because I simply didn’t enjoy most of my time reading it, despite some good moments. But I also, for perhaps the first time, feel much less sure about not recommending it. I can’t imagine many people enjoying it, but the book also made me wonder if I can imagine anymore what a 12-yr-old boy does enjoy. After all, I also don’t get Twitter or The Farting Dog books. The list, I’m afraid, of things I don’t get is getting frighteningly long…
So: not recommended, but feel free to have your 12-yr-old take it for a spin. If he likes it, just think of me now and then on that porch. In my bathrobe.
Warning: Contains spoilers for previous books
In The Knights of Crystallia, the third book of Brandon Sanderson’s ALCATRAZ series, Alcatraz and the gang head off to their homeland, the Free Kingdoms, a set of islands that exists in our world but that you don’t know about because the Evil Librarians make sure it gets omitted from all published maps.
In this kingdom, Alcatraz is a celebrity, which is a huge step up from being an unwanted orphan in the United States. Alcatraz doesn’t always deal with his fame and fortune in the most responsible or mature ways, but fortunately he is a thoughtful and well-meaning boy and is able to turn his mistakes into learning experiences.
As usual, the action and comedy is non-stop and features battles, daring escapes, explosions, betrayals, and much danger. As he relates his adventures, Alcatraz berates readers who haven’t read the previous books (such as Bill, see above) and regularly remarks on how awesome he is (because his former tactic of being humble didn’t work). He worries about his relationship with his new-found father and seems obtuse about his growing attachment to Bastille (whom we learn a lot more about in this book). For the first time he is given some responsibility in their war against the librarians and learns some more about his mother. He also learns that it’s valuable to listen to people you disagree with, and he writes a dissertation about fishsticks.
Bill is right that The Knights of Crystallia is a “book targeted at a YA audience” (though I disagree that it is specifically a “male” audience). As I’ve mentioned in my reviews of the previous novels, this is a lot of its charm for me. My 13 year old daughter loves it, and I love anything that makes her want to read more. I’m willing to suffer through a couple of fart jokes for that and I appreciate that Sanderson winks at his adult audience with SFF in-jokes, including references to his books for adults as well as allusions to Pratchett and Tolkien.
The recent Starscape hardback reprints of the ALCATRAZ series feature lovely art by Hayley Lazo. If you’re going to be purchasing the series in print, I highly recommend these versions. While in the car together, my daughter and I have also enjoyed listening to the audiobooks produced by Recorded Books. Ramon De Ocampo does a great job with the narration.
Alcatraz — (2007-2016) Ages 9-12. Publisher: A hero with an incredible talent… for breaking things. A life-or-death mission… to rescue a bag of sand. A fearsome threat from a powerful secret network… the evil Librarians. Alcatraz Smedry doesn’t seem destined for anything but disaster. On his 13th birthday he receives a bag of sand, which is quickly stolen by the cult of evil Librarians plotting to take over the world. The sand will give the Librarians the edge they need to achieve world domination. Alcatraz must stop them!… by infiltrating the local library, armed with nothing but eyeglasses and a talent for klutziness. Alcatraz’s ability to break things, he soon learns, is actually a Talent. Alcatraz must learn to use his Talent as he goes after the sands with a team of resistors, including Grandpa Smedry (Talent: “I have the ability to arrive late to things”… including arriving late to pain, or to his own death), Sing Smedry (Talent: “I can trip and fall to the ground”…avoiding injury in surprise attacks), Quentin Smedry (Talent: “I can say things that make absolutely no sense whatsoever”… if captured, he speaks nonsense instead of spilling secrets), and Bastille (a girl Alcatraz’s age, who is a knight charged with protecting Grandpa Smedry. Bastille has no Talent, but she’s got spunk, skill, and spark to spare). Together they must defeat a Dark Oculator and retrieve the magical lenses smelted from the sand, which allow Alcatraz to read The Forgotten Language, a previously indecipherable text — including a message from his long-lost father, who may not be dead after all…
I grew up reading Roald Dahl and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth…do they still write books like that for kids? What happened to stimulating the imagination along with expanding vocabulary? Oh god, does this mean I’m getting old? Oh man this sucks…
Justin, take a look at Bill’s review list. He’s read lots of YA and has ranked it there. There are several series that he really likes. Also, take a look at the kids page.
I love most of what Sanderson writes. However, I’m not sure continuing the Alcatraz series was a great idea, artistically. The first book was two things, and I can highly recommend it: First, it was a fun fantasy adventure with a good sense of humor; Second, it was snarky commentary on writing fantasy novels and the art of writing in general. Hilarious.
The problem was, continuing that kind of self-referential humor indefinitely grows tired. It just doesn’t work for a series, so he had to transition to something else–a more standard fantasy novel–and it didn’t work as well for me in the second book. I haven’t gone back to try the third yet, but don’t let the third turn you off from the first. “Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians” was very fun.
Thanks for the info. Between my belief that Sanderson is quite a good writer and your comments on book one, especially the “writing about writing” aspect, I’ll give it a shot.
Join the club Justin. We meet in a dark, dank underground cavern with no lights so as not to see the visual evidence of our ever increasing age. We dress in bathrobes, slosh our favorite drink around (which of course isn’t as good as they used to make it), and clear our throats a lot while complaining. Should I mark you down for Tuesdays and Thursdays?
I hadn’t read Bill’s earlier review before. I’m sitting in my bathrobe as I read these now. How meta!
I have been known, on occasion, to shout at children to get off my lawn.
I no longer have a lawn, so problem solved. “Hey, you kids, get off my bark chips…” not quite the same ring.