Series Review: Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians books 1 & 2 by Brandon Sanderson
Review copies were provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of Alcatraz
Publisher: Starscape (February 16, 2016)
Length: 320 pages
I’ve been a terrible Brandon Sanderson fan! Seriously, how else to explain for the many years it took me to finally read his Alcatraz series? Mea culpa, it was complete negligence on my part, and I am sorry. But in my own defense, these books do fall a little outside my purview. After all, very rarely do I dip my toes into the Children’s/Middle Grade category, and they did seem far removed from the author’s other work. By his own admission, this series is very different from his normal style and they tend to be a source of contention among his readers. Don’t let that stop you if you think this might be something you’ll enjoy, though! Personally, I jumped into this first book amidst a bevy of reservations, but I ended up loving it to bits.
Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians is the first in a fantasy adventure series featuring its eponymous protagonist who is narrating this book as its writer—“Brandon Sanderson” is just a front, you see. The real person behind this novel is a young boy named Alcatraz Smedry. He is thirteen years old and lives with his foster parents. He is also great at breaking things. It all began with an old bag of sand, mailed to Alcatraz on his birthday—the only inheritance left to him by his birth parents. But before you can even say “Gee, thanks mom and dad”, the bag is stolen by a member of the Librarians, an evil cult that knows the sand is more than it seems. For centuries, they have been controlling information and spreading lies to keep everyone blind to their dastardly plans of world domination, but now that Alcatraz has learned the truth of his birthright, he and his new allies are going to strike back at the heart of the enemy—by planning a daring mission to infiltrate the central downtown library.
Don’t let the synopsis of the book fool you, because the utter absurdity of the plot actually belies its sheer ingenuity. The story is clever and beyond hilarious, thanks to the playfully sarcastic voice of our protagonist. Alcatraz himself is a bit of a trickster, often going on wildly bizarre tangents and freely admitting that he’s not a very nice person for yanking the reader around. Still, I could hardly hold that against him, considering the many times his narration drove me to hysterical fits of laughter. This is Sanderson at his funniest, combining his good-natured humor with a spirit of adventure. More than once I found myself wishing there had been books like this when I was a child, because I would have eaten this one up.
That said, just because these are “kids’ books” doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy them too. My favorite stories are always those that can be appreciated an audience of all ages, and Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians definitely fits that description, being a book I would readily recommend to anyone, whether they are 13 or 30. While it does feature some over-the-top storytelling, never once did I feel things were dumbed down or glossed over unnecessarily. In fact, the plot was decidedly twisty and unpredictable, with some very well thought out and complex ideas. From the very first page you get a sense of the zaniness behind this novel and the anticipatory feeling that anything can happen.
For a personal project that began life as a way for the author to have a good time and practice another form of storytelling, this book has certainly found itself a loyal fanbase, which I now consider myself a part of. Alcatraz may be very different from Sanderon’s adult books, but it nevertheless shows his incredible versatility as a writer, and you can tell he had a blast writing this. Clearly, I had a blast reading it too, and the gorgeous artwork by Hayley Lazo in the illustrated edition only added to the experience. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.
Illustrations by Hayley Lazo, from Chapters 14 and 15 of Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson. Source: Tor.com
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Series: Book 2 of Alcatraz
Publisher: Starscape (February 16, 2016)
Length: 368 pages
No sooner had I finished Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians than I was already picking up the sequel. I might as well admit it: I’m completely addicted.
In book two The Scrivener’s Bones, Alcatraz and the gang are yet again infiltrating a library. But this time, it will be nothing like gaining entry into the downtown local branch. Here, our characters will be heading into arguably the most famous and well-known library in the history of our world—the great Library of Alexandria. Contrary to popular belief (i.e. misinformation purposely orchestrated by the evil cult of Librarians) this ancient font of knowledge was never destroyed, hidden instead in hollowed out vaults deep underground. It’s also one of the most dangerous places on the planet, home to the undead who have sold their souls for the knowledge in the library. After learning that Grandpa Smedry may have gone there to track down Alcatraz’s missing father, everyone heads to Egypt in what was supposed to be a daring rescue mission, but ends up separated and in need of some rescuing themselves.
For a sequel in a children’s series, a lot sure happens in this book. I liked that we made good progress on the main storyline, which is a crucial aspect when it comes to maintaining my interest, though I would have kept reading this series for the laughs alone. As I’ve mentioned before, the sense of humor in Alcatraz is very eccentric and frequently over-the-top, which will no doubt appeal to the books’ intended audience, Middle Grade readers in the ages 8-12 range. That said, if you’re an adult with a good tolerance for silliness (like me, I guess!) you’ll have a blast too. Sanderson is clearly holding nothing back when it comes to this particular style of humor, but as an older reader I was also able to spot a method to the madness.
It’s probably safe to say though, that while the series can be enjoyed on multiple levels, if the first book didn’t work for you, then this one won’t do anything for you either. There’s no dialing back at all on Alcatraz’s quirky, tangential style of narration. In fact, I think the sarcasm, the misdirection, the asides etc. might even more extreme in book two (if that’s even possible). As a fan of the author’s adult books though, I found it incredibly refreshing in a bizarre, meta kind of way, especially when he references books, writing, and even himself in a hilariously self-deprecating manner:
“Oh, you didn’t want to hear that? I’m sorry. You’ll simply have to forget that I wrote it. There are several convenient ways to do that. I hear hitting yourself on the head with a blunt object can be very effective. You should try using one of Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novels. They’re big enough, and goodness knows that’s really the only useful thing to do with them.”
Those are the moments where I laughed the hardest. Not to mention, I was also hoodwinked into committing “one of the most putrid and unholy things any reader can do”—skipping forward to read the last page! (So, it really does go back to authors being not very nice people who delight in the suffering of their readers.) Sanderson has plenty of tricks left up his sleeve, and apparently he’s nowhere even close to done with us yet. If this sequel is any indication, I expect even more madcap adventures and wacky characters from the next installments.
Whether it’s for the special child in your life, or the inner child within you, I really can’t recommend these books highly enough. In a few years, my own kids will be the right age for this series, and I can’t wait to share it with them.