The Call (Book 1 of the Magnificent 12), by Michael Grant (HarperCollins, 2010, middle grade, 243 pages)
If you are looking for a fantasy book for your kids (or yourself) that is tremendously entertaining (in a chuckle out loud way), which doesn't take itself too terribly Seriously, but yet has a nice tight plot; a book which has nice generous spacing so your reluctant reader won't be daunted, but which can be enjoyed by all ages, I highly recommend The Call, the first book of Michael Grant's new series.
12 year old Mack has no reason to think he is extraordinary (apart from his large number of phobias). The one area in which, inexplicably, he's braver than ordinary is his attitude toward bullies--he's not afraid to take them on (with guile and cunning, rather than fisticuffs). And his school has bullies in plenty, with each subgroup (jocks, geeks, etc. having its own designated bully). At the top of the pecking order is Stefan, a 15 year old seventh grader with no phobias at all. A miscalculation lands Mack in trouble with Stefan, but fortuitously, instead of Stefan's fist slamming into Mack, it slams through a sheet of glass--and Mack saves Stefan's from bleeding to death, and Stefan becomes his protector. (Sorry. This isn't all that important, but I really enjoyed the book, and it's making me long winded. I shall try to be more succinct now).
Then we flip back in time, to a messy era three thousand years ago, when the Pale Queen is raising armies of grotesque creatures and Grimluck, a young father, is forced to adopt Flee-er as his new profession
Back to Mack. Someone is trying to kill him. Grimluck (still alive!) is trying to save him. The Evil of the Pale Queen, and her daughter, is rising again. Grimluck, back in the past, had helped defeat her...but it was only a temporary fix, and he's still trying to finish the job. The daughter, a nasty piece of work, has her sights set on Mack. Because (I don't think I'm giving anything away here--look at the title) --Mack is special!
So, for reasons that are unclear to them, Mack and Stefen are sent off to Australia with plane tickets and lots of money (Grimluck had planned ahead by opening a Swiss Bank account back when the Swiss banks first opened). And then Adventure happens! A second member of the Magnificent 12 is met! It is exciting! (really truly).
It is a fine story, but what made this book work beautifully for me is that Grant is clearly having fun with it, without letting it slip into the realm of farce. Here's one of the emails the golem, back at home, sends 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 toilet and flushed many times. Now there is water on the floor and also on the stairs. I think Mom noticed.
Golem (page 124)
And while that was happening at home, Mack and Stefen's flight turned ugly when a monster landed on the wing of their plane.
"When it stared at Mack with its white jelly eyes and grinned its broken grin, Mack had no doubt, no doubt whatsoever, that it was coming for him.
"Whoa," Stefan said. "Gnarly."
The flight attendants were telling everyone to stay calm. But they didn't look too calm themselves. Anyone could see that the creature was walking its way down the wing toward the plane.
"It's coming to kill me," Mack said, sounding far more calm than he felt.
"You're under my wing," Stefan said. But he sounded a little doubtful to Mack.
"It can't get in, can it?" Mack cried in a shrill, whinnying sort of tone that was definitely not heroic.
"The door can't be opened from the outside," a flight attendant cried, sounding just like Mack had sounded. "Probably."
"I hate probably," Mack said. He tried to think of a way out, of a way to fight the monster, or alternately a way to hide. "The bathroom!"
"Yo, I have to go, too," Stefan said, "but we got bigger problems." (pages 134-135)
I enjoyed this lots! And I'm currently giving away a signed copy (courtesy of the publishers). Enter to win at this post down here, by midnight tomorrow (Wednesday, October 6).
(note for those looking for diversity in middle grade sci fi/fantasy--the second member of the Magnificent 12 turns out to be half white, half Aboriginal Australian. She doesn't get enough page time for me to count this in my list of non-white sci fi/fantasy above, but perhaps in later books.....)
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)