Posts Tagged ‘ Brandon Mull ’

The Last Three Fablehaven Books

When I read the first two Fablehaven books, I was struck by how differently I would describe both of them. The first was a wild, dangerous fairy tale, and the second was a safe children’s book driven by cool ideas. I’ve now read the rest of the five-book series, and even though the narrative style has stayed consistent, I would still describe each one pretty differently.

Overall, Brandon Mull has written a very good series that I would recommend to younger “Young Adult” readers or to adults looking for a fun children’s fantasy.

Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague

Grip of the Shadow Plague is driven by a lot of ideas, but none of them are as memorable as the grossest and coolest moments of the previous book. Instead, the impression I took away was that this is a tightly plotted series with a lot of threads and characters being juggled at once. Many things from previous books are developed here, and many more are left hanging for later. Mull does this very well. The plot progresses smoothly despite the number of things going on, and nothing is left for too long without a payoff.

The plot is more about quantity than quality, though, with two new regions of the Fablehaven preserve, time travel, another set of magical challenges hiding a MacGuffin, another preserve, and the titular “shadow plague” being only some of the significant features. Everything feels consistent within its world (a huge step up from most Harry Potter-inspired stories), and if none set the imagination on fire like the previous book, the story is consistently enjoyable.

Fablehaven: Secret of the Dragon Sanctuary cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven: Secret of the Dragon Sanctuary

Though it’s just as tightly plotted, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary is where the series feels like it’s unravelling. This isn’t just because it’s the third book in a row with that MacGuffin hidden behind a series of challenges. It also begins to fall into the Harry Potter trap in which an an ever-expanding magical world becomes inconsistent. In this case, the story opens up by revealing that of course there’s a magical attack that perfectly circumvents the good guys’ defenses, but that no one has thought to prepare for. In fact, the villains would have won in the opening chapters if an inexplicably foolish action hadn’t revealed them.

This beginning also involves the main characters dealing with a significant tragedy, and the story simply skips forward several days rather than portray their reactions. Whether its a weakness of Mull’s writing, or simply a lack of interest, he puts no effort into what should have been the most important character-building scenes of the series. That’s strange, given that the one big strength unique to this book is Seth’s continuing development, retaining his impulsive character as he grows and learns from past mistakes.

I had other quibbles with this book, as well. For example, Seth taunts an opponent with obvious falsehoods even though he spends a section of the book wearing a device that will kill him if he ever lies. A surprise near the end of the book involves the Society “crossing an unthinkable boundary”, which, honestly, would have been one of the first things a villain fighting the status quo would do. And most importantly, I had serious doubts about the morality of the heroes’ actions by the end of their quest.

Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary gets by mainly on the strengths of the previous books, and it puts all the pieces in place for an interesting conclusion. On its own, though, it is the weak point in the series.

Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison

Fortunately, Keys to the Demon Prison does pull everything together for the ending that the series deserves. With Mull’s excellent plot management, it’s not too surprising that just about everything is wrapped up in a satisfying way.

The big difference in this book is that it takes on many more trappings of swords-and-sorcery epics.With its matters of honor, fantasy royalty, and even dragon-slaying, the book loses a little of its focus on Kendra and Seth’s family. There are also some unnecessary history lessons that provide belated world-building with oddly specific details. (A couple speeches stand out so much that I’ve wondered if they are allegory for Mormon stories. I know nothing about that, though; Can anyone weigh in? Mull does arguably let his beliefs show through in the series’ moral lessons. Note that these are presented as good conversation-starters, and are all unobjectionable for children’s literature regardless of your religious beliefs.)

Don’t let the shift towards the epic scare you away, though. Fablehaven closes on a strong note, and it’s easy to forget about some missteps in book four when thinking back on the series as a whole.

Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague: B-

Fablehaven: Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary: C

Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison: B


The First Two Fablehaven Books

Fablehaven cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven

I have my misgivings about Harry Potter, but I tried out Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series even though it was recommended to me as being “like Harry Potter“. I’m glad I did. It’s not clear to me how it will keep up the world-building without eventually getting bogged down and inconsistent, but the first two books were worth reading.

The first book, Fablehaven, introduces the central conceit: Magical creatures live in our world, but are almost extinct. A small group of people keep the existence of magic a secret while also running preserves on which these creatures still live. When thirteen-year old Kendra and her younger brother Seth discover this, they get caught up in their grandparents’ efforts to protect the haven, if not the whole world, from evil forces.

This book draws as much inspiration from dark old fairy tales as safer modern stories. The magical creatures are dangerous and inhuman. The intelligent ones are immortal, and can’t bring themselves to focus on, or even comprehend, the concerns of the brief-lived humans who are trying to save them. Most of the danger here comes from a more complex worldview than simply good versus evil.

This book taps into the mix of the innocent and the horrific that gives classic fairy tales their power. The children, especially headstrong Seth, make mistakes with horrible consequences, and the sense of danger is strong. The first hint of magic they discover is grotesque and unique, and described so viscerally that it still sticks with me. It should be said that the plot pacing is uneven, but that also serves to make the disasters and sudden plot shifts much more surprising.

Until the ending, that is. The resolution manages to fix even problems that seemed irreversible, and retroactively makes the world seem safe and fair after all. This is maybe necessary for its target age range, but felt like a betrayal of the story I had come to expect.

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star shows Mull’s growing skill as a writer. I have no complaints here about uneven pacing, as the length and plot progression fit the book perfectly. He also appears to be managing the series well. Small events from Fablehaven are now growing into a larger story, and events from the first book are logically followed up on here. This avoids Harry Potter’s problem with characters or spells from one book that just seem forgotten when they could be useful in later ones. It helps that in Fablehaven, magic comes from non-human creatures. People rarely understand how or why fantastical items work, and the magical creatures have established motivations to keep them from becoming directly involved. This resolves most questions of “why didn’t someone just solve the problem with this spell?” Even so, there are a lot of powerful items and creatures on display here, given how small their ecosystem is supposed to be. I worry that that will start to seem inconsistent within a few books.

The immediate problem, though, is that between Mull’s cleaner writing and the reassuring ending of the first book, Rise of the Evening Star never finds the sense of danger that impressed me in Fablehaven. The in-book dangers are still great, and the disasters still happen, but the reader can clearly see the path to a happy conclusion.

Mull has a knack for cool ideas. I don’t want to spoil the creatures the kids encounter here or some of the things that happen to the main characters, but if you ask any young fans about this series, they will probably be bursting to tell you about all the crazy, imaginative things that happen here. That’s true in both books, but seems to be even more prominent now that Mull has found his footing in book two.

Overall, these books are fun if flawed, and their best parts are very memorable. I preferred the more chaotic, unpredictable feel of the first book, but I can see why some people think that the series improves as it goes along. Either way, I’m curious to see what happens next. I’m not sure if it will keep working for me, but it’s doing better than Harry Potter was after two books.

Fablehaven: B

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star: B-