Project X-Calibur, by Greg Pace (Putnam, Middle Grade, Oct. 2013) is a fun adventure that mixes science fiction with a dash of fantasy.
13-year old Ben is having a thin time of it after his father's death; he might be a whizz at car repair, but he's not so great at earning social respect, money is tight, and though Ben dreams of epic adventure, small town Texas has yet to deliver any. But when a creepy kid turns up and introduces himself as Merlin, adventure is delivered in spades.
Ben is recruited to be one of a select group of five teens to join together, like modern Knights of the Round-Table, to face the worst threat humanity has ever known--an alien invasion. In a top secret base in England, an alien space craft, dubbed X-Calibur, and four human-made copies wait for the kids to fly them off into space to protect earth. X-Calibur's alien magical technology only responds to kids, and one of the five will be chosen to pilot it in the battle to come. Ben doesn't think he has a chance of being that one; he still must prove that Merlin didn't make a mistake by choosing him, since he is so very much the most ordinary of all the kids. And then a sixth kid, who just so happens to be the immortal King Pellinore's daughter, joins in the competition...
It looks like Ben doesn't stand a chance, but he keeps trying, and even has the decency to help his rivals overcome their own problems. And, unsurprisingly, it is up to Ben in the end to pull the sword from the stone, as it were, and put X-Calibur's stunning secrets to the test.
Greg Pace has taken a somewhat generic plot--ordinary kid with extraordinary destiny, tested against a passel of rival kids (some hostile, some friendly)--and made it fresh and fun with the whole Arthurian fantasy meets Alien Invasion premise. It's kind of odd to have Merlin and Pellinore side by side with alien technology, and there's no particularly informative explanation given, but that doesn't interfere with the story--what is one more suspension of disbelief among so many.
The focus of the story is on the training and the testing, with the suspense of Ben keeping his place in the program the driving plot issue. The actual fight against the aliens comes rather far along in the book, and seemed to me to be over with in the blink of an eye; it was almost an anti-climax, and I would have enjoyed a bit more build up of tension
That being said, I am pretty sure that the target audience (kids of ten or so) will have no trouble identifying with Ben, and cheering him on as he struggles to get his chance to help save humanity. Give this one to a reader who enjoys stories of kids being trained for great things, especially the reader who likes to cheer for the underdog!
disclaimer: review copy received from the author