Three for the Boys
By Patrick Carman
Little, Brown, 2010
By Richard Harland
Simon & Schuster, 2010
By Jonathan Maberry
Simon & Schuster, 2010
As an educator and someone who has worked in the children’s department of a large bookstore, I am always hearing how hard it is to get boys to read. There are so few good, solid stories that appeal to boys without descending into the disgusting or the clueless. When moving up to young adult literature, the trend has continued: curry favor with girls (witness the huge success of the “Twilight” series) and treat boys as an afterthought. With that in mind, I want to tell you about three cracking good adventures about and for the guys. Don’t worry, girls can read and enjoy them as well. However, the protagonists are boys, the struggles are those that a boy goes through, and each of the boys becomes a hero. These three books describe a young man’s journey to become a hero, as he discovers the greatness within himself.
Thirteen Days to Midnight by Patrick Carman is good. The main character, Jacob Fielding, goes from ordinary to hero in a way reminiscent of Superman, as he becomes indestructible. His transformation has both depth and completeness. Worldshaker by Richard Harland is better. Colbert Porpentine transforms from a spoiled brat to a strong decisive man through his actions. His greatness is not thrust upon him by extraordinary abilities, but by his growing awareness of the world he lives in and his conscious decision to fix it. His journey is one that boys can relate to – they may be in the process of making it themselves. Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry is amazing! Benny Imura changes from a bored, sullen teenager to a zombie-hunting, friend-rescuing young man ready to face whatever life throws his way. The zombie background of Rot & Ruin grabs the reader’s attention, the actions of and discoveries about Benny’s world keep it until the very last page. Benny isn’t granted any special abilities, he works to acquire his strengths and learns to do what needs to be done. It’s not just a journey a young reader may be in the process of making, it’s one he can aspire to.
Thirteen Days to Midnight is about Jacob Fielding’s discovery that he has a superpower. He is indestructible. He can be shot, jump off of a roof, have a knife driven through him, or be punched in the face and he comes through without a scratch. Jacob, along with his best friend Milo Coffin and his becomng-his-girlfriend Ophelia James (called, “Oh”) discover the extent of his invulnerability. For starters, he jumps down from heights that would ordinarily break bones and picks a fight with a school bully. Together the three friends realize that Jacob can loan his power by saying or writing, “You are indestructible.” He takes the power back by saying, “I am indestructible.”
What does a regular high school guy do when he discovers he can’t be hurt? What does this same guy do when he discovers, through trial and error, that by looking at a picture and name on a website and uttering the formula he can keep other people from harm? Whom does he save? Whom does he condemn to death? Along his journey, Jacob discovers how he got his power and, after much too late, the proper way to use it. (Sharing is not always a good idea!)
The book’s premise is fascinating and the story starts off powerfully. You really believe in Jacob, Milo and Oh. They are teenagers with a beat-up car who send text messages, have crushes on girls, go to school, get into occasional trouble with teachers and parents and, oh yeah, need to decide what to do with the extraordinary ability to be indestructible. Jacob Fielding interacts with priests and attends a Catholic High School, but there are no long lectures on sin or resurrection. Father Tim’s role is more explanatory, as when he says, “Well sure, there are ten thousand secret sins I can’t tell you. Comes with the territory,” before handing Jacob the key that, literally, unlocks the secret of his invulnerability, prompting Jacob to wonder, “Why would God let a power like this fall into my inexperienced hands?”
With each new discovery about Jacob’s power, through the strengthening of his relationship with Oh and the testing of his friendship with Milo, you are rooting for all three of them. Unfortunately, Thirteen Days to Midnight fizzles out in the middle. The pace starts to plod, and you can see the ending coming a mile away. For example, Milo and Jacob take a drive out to the coast and talk. They talk about the financial future of Holy Cross, more aspects of the indestructible power (Jacob calls it “The Black Lion”) and how his foster father died. The conversation spans ten pages and is too long for the revelations it contains. There’s some good writing, but not enough plot. When I finished reading this book I was a bit relieved; the writing isn’t quite good enough to save this adventure from its predictable happy ending.
In Worldshaker, Colbert Porpentine is a sheltered spoiled member of the privileged class aboard a ship that houses the equivalent of an entire city. There are the residents of the upper decks, the privileged; the Menials, the strangely subdued servants to the upper decks; and the Filthies, no surprises here, the lower class, the ship’s workers. Col meets Riff, a Filthy girl who escapes the lower decks and is (gulp) roaming the upper decks. The two meet when Riff hides in Col’s cabin to escape pursuing officers. Col is surprised, both by her appearance and by the fact that he doesn’t turn her over to the officers but says he has not seen her. His brief view of Riff contradicts everything he has been told about the Filthies. She is pretty! She can talk! She’s not stupid! She moves gracefully!
She opened her mouth and spoke. “Don’t let ’em take me.” It wasn’t a grunt, but actual proper words! Pronounced in a rough and uncouth accent, but definitely words!
Col goggled. “You can speak?”
“Course I can speak. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I thought . . . I didn’t know Filthies could speak. Menials can’t.”
“Yeah, I heard about Menials.”
“We train Filthies and make them into Menials. Then they can understand human language.”
“Untrain ’em, more like. They could understand and speak before.”
Col had no answer. His head was spinning; he couldn’t adjust.
She jumped up suddenly. She was all muscle and sinew, lithe and slight.
As the book progresses, Col discovers that his world is not what he thought it was. In this exchange with his tutor, Professor Twillip, Col discovers that the Filthies are not a separate, inferior species.
“But what about the-”
“Filthies? They weren’t given that name until much later. They were the labor force that made mass industrialization possible. They became the factory slaves.”
“Yes, but where did they come from? How did they arrive in the Old Country?”
“They had always been there. They were the lower classes.
“What?” Col thought back. “You mean the workers? The urban poor.
It comes as no shock that Col’s school is set up to reward the privileged according to their social status. However, watching Col make these discoveries is uncomfortably familiar. We have all, at one time or another, realized that our assumptions were flawed. Sometimes, “everybody knows” is garbage. Col starts out being, “quite sure that Upper Decks people would never do ‘horrible things.’ Mere Filthy ignorance! He had studied ethics with his tutor, so he knew torture was against proper moral principles.” and realizes later that the process of transforming Filthies into Menials is unjust torture condoned and perpetrated by his beloved grandmother..
“Let me show you the wire they use for sewing.” Ebnolia swung one of the trays on the metal tree closer. On the tray were half a dozen bobbins of bright golden wire. “The very finest wire, you see.” She held one bobbin in front of Riff’s face. “Not only for the tongue, but all parts of the body. They’ll sew you up inside, where nobody can see. You have far more movement than you really need, you know.” She pulled another tray closer, a tray that bore a small box. She opened it up to display row upon row of shining needles nestled in beds of red velvet.
While watching Col’s discoveries, we have to consider whether our view of the world is based on incomplete or incorrect information.
Just as this story seems to be turning into a “people with money and social status are evil” morality tale, the story takes an unexpected turn. The character of Gillabeth, Col’s bitter and unfriendly older sister, is impressive. When Col confronts her about her working with his schoolmates to humiliate and beat him up, Gillabeth’s outburst shows how much she has absorbed about her world:
Col was amazed that his starchy sister had such violent emotions in her . . . .
“I had to fight for every tiny scrap I ever got. I had to find things out and plan and plot. No one gave me anything but dumb piano lessons. I’m only at school to report on you. No one cares about my marks!”
“I never knew you felt-”
“Because you’re a simpleton. Shielded from the real world. . . You’d be the worst supreme commander in the world. I’d be a hundred times better.”
“Except you can’t be.”
She bit her lip and fell silent. Col reflected on what she’d just said. “You mean when he grows up and starts to speak?”
Gillabeth held her tongue.
You want to know this scheming woman better and Col realizes that he does, too. What happens to a smart, hardworking girl forced to live in a society where status is granted by virtue of being born male into the right family? Gillabeth sees the injustice of their family and society long before Col does, but it doesn’t feel as if Col is stupid; he’s just been fed a lifetime of nonsense that he needs to unlearn. The surprises the book springs are one reason it’s so good. Col’s realization that he needs to do something is sharp, yet steadily built upon a series of discoveries that, while predictable, are believable. Meeting Riff shows Col that Filthies are human beings. Seeing the equipment that would make her a Menial drives home that lesson. Discovering that his beloved grandmother, Ebnolia, underhandedly starves her “favorite” Menials to death so that she can make a public showing of care and compassion shows reveals the ruthlessness and cruelty that exist in the Upper Decks. These revelations, and Col’s integration of them into his understanding of his world are satisfyingly realized. In Worldshaker, the slightly predictable ending is okay. You can see what is probably going to happen, but you have no idea how.
Col’s development and struggles ring true as he realizes that he has been fed a lifetime of lies. His journey from self-centered pampered brat to smart, strong, and heroic is fun and enlightening. One strength of Worldshaker is the action: Col does not merely see the injustice of his world – he acts to change it. He learns how to fight, taught by Riff, and there is a wonderful scene where he puts his lessons into practice when cornered by a group of boys from school:
The rest of the gang advanced in a semicircle behind him. They had armed themselves with Mr. Gibber’s canes, which they cut and swished from side to side . . . .
He waited, clear and composed, until the very last moment . . .
Then he exploded like an unbound spring . . . . He kept at arms length, poised and spinning on his toes . . .It was as though everything had fallen into place. Once he threw himself into nonstop fighting, he was caught up in the rhythm and his timing was perfect.
Boys understand having to fight, feeling outnumbered and the joy of emerging victorious. The action will hold their interest. Col’s revelations will keep their attention, as well as open their eyes to possible injustice in their own worlds. I was left looking forward to the next book in the series, Liberator.
The best of these three books is definitely Rot & Ruin. I’m not a big fan of horror stories and zombie tales, and I loved this book. It’s not as much about the living dead as it is about living in a world with the living dead in your backyard. Benny Imura lives in Mountainside, a fenced community in what used to be California, protected from the zombies that rose after First Night. After the age of fifteen, his food ration will be cut in half if he doesn’t find a job. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to find a job he can do or stomach, so he agrees to go into the “family business,” zombie hunting with his older brother, Tom. Benny thinks Tom is a coward, and has thought so ever since Tom ran away, carrying baby Benny, from their recently zombified father who had just caught Benny’s mother. Benny hates Tom for running and not fighting and believes the legends of Tom Imura, brave and fearless zombie bounty hunter are just that – legends.
Tom cut a quick look at him, but he continued to sip his coffee and was a long time answering. “Tell me, kiddo, what is it you think I do?”
“Duh! You kill zoms.”
“That’s what you say,” Benny said, then grudgingly added, “That’s what everyone says. Tom Imura the great zombie killer.”
Tom nodded, as if Benny had said something interesting. “So, far as you see it, that’s all I do? I just walk up to any zombie I see and pow!”
“Uh . . . . yeah.” He wanted to say that he thought Tom probably used a high-powered rifle with a scope and killed them from a safe distance; not like Charlie and Hammer, who had the stones to do it mano a mano.
But, hey, Benny needs a job and Tom will take him on. How hard can it be to whack zombies?
Turns out, harder than it seems, and not just because of the myriad fighting techniques that need to be mastered. Zombies used to be people. The description of Benny’s first trip to the Ruin with his brother to see what Tom really does illustrates this beautifully.
“The whole world is a graveyard. If it was you, would you rather be in a little wooden box under the cold ground or in the place where you lived? A place where you were happy and loved.”
Neither thought was appealing to Benny. He shivered even though the room was stifling hot.
Tom removed the envelope from his pocket. Apart from the folded erosion portrait, there was also a piece of cream stationery on which were written several handwritten lines. Tom read it through silently, sighed, and then turned to his brother.
“Restraining the dead is difficult, Benny, but it isn’t the hardest part.” He held out the letter. “This is”
Benny took the letter.
“My clients – the people who hire me to come out here – they usually want something said. Things they would like to say themselves but can’t. Things they need said, so they have closure. Do you understand?”
Benny read the letter. His breath caught unexpectedly in his throat, and he nodded as the first tears fell down his cheeks.
Tom angled the letter into the dusty light, and read:
My dear Harold, I love you and miss you . . .
One job that Benny tries for and fails to get is that of Erosion Artist. Erosion Artists take pictures of loved ones from family members and paint how they would appear as zombies. The bounty hunters can then track them down and put them out of their misery. Severing the brain stem does the trick.
Mountainside, where Benny and his friends Morgie, Chong, and Nix live is a well thought out and depicted world. Electricity is almost gone – knocked out when zombies invaded the cities, Hand cranked power generators, horses and hand built houses (bearing a certain admiring resemblance to the Amish) are the norm. There is the local legend/hero, Charlie Matthias, who regales the kids with tales of his zombie hunting adventures:
That’s how Charlie Matthias always described his car. Then he’d give a big braying horselaugh, because no matter how many times he said it, he thought it was the funniest joke ever. People tended to laugh with him rather than at the actual joke, because Charlie had a seventy-inch chest and twenty-four-inch biceps, and his sweat was a soup of testosterone, anabolic steroids, and Jack Daniels. You don’t laugh, he gets mad and starts to think you’re messing with him. Something ugly usually followed Charlie becoming offended.
Benny always laughed. Not because he was afraid of what Charlie would do to him if he didn’t, but because Benny thought Charlie was hilarious. And cool. He thought there was no one cooler on planet Earth. . . .
In Charlie’s stories, that car had lived through the bombs and the ghouls and a thousand adventures, and could never be forgotten. Charlie said he’d been a real road warrior in the LeMans, cruising through the blacktop and bashing zoms. . . . . Charlie and the Hammer had been the first of the hunters – again, according to Charlie – and they’d been at it since the beginning, making their first paid kills eight months after First Night.
A subset of the Mountainside community believes that electricity is a tool of the devil and the zombies are the divine punishment. Food that can’t be grown and harvested is gathered from abandoned homes and farms in zombie territory – the Ruin. Only bounty hunters and the occasional monks travel in the Ruin. Benny Imura travels it for the first time as he trains with Tom.
The characters are complex, always in flux and depicted by what they do rather than lengthy descriptions of what they are. There are no long periods of introspection, except Benny’s occasional musings on what he has just seen:
“Mr. Sacchetto,” Benny said again, and this time his voice was full of cracks, ready to break.
The zom stepped toward Benny, reaching with its broken fingers, and still Benny was frozen in the moment, rooted to the rain-slick kitchen floor. It was only when the very tips of the zombie’s cold fingers brushed his cheek that Benny came alive again.
It was terror and it was rage. The terror was for what was reaching for him – this dead and shambling thing; and the rage was for what had been taken from him – a friend, a person he knew.
He burst into the living room and dove for the bag of training equipment. The best weapons were in the kitchen – knives, hammers, a toolbox. He had the wooden swords. They would have to do.
Tom, it turns out, is not a coward. Charlie is not a brave hero. Nix is a girl, not just a friend, and braver and fiercer than any fourteen-year-old in our world could ever be. Benny struggles to accept that his view of Tom may be all wrong and to see the subtleties of the Ruin, which contains zombies that are not all bad and bounty hunters that are true monsters. Like Col in Worldshaker, he has to unlearn what he has always assumed to be true. Like Jacob in Thirteen Days to Midnight, he has to learn what it takes to be a hero. Benny fights, kicking and screaming, as he is faced with his challenges. He needs to fight (and get beaten sometimes), to re-evaluate and to discover what kind of man he will be. Benny’s growth is shown through the action, adventure, and travels he both experiences and causes.
No, the zombies are not wiped out at the end of Rot & Ruin. That is one of the book’s many strengths. Sometimes the bad guys win; sometimes the good guys lose. But, Benny is a hero, even if it takes a lot of time and pain for him to become one. If you’re looking for descriptions of rotting flesh, moans, and the dying being ripped apart while screaming – read another book. Rot & Ruin, while describing zombies, is about a boy becoming a man.
As I said, books for young adult males are hard to find. The premises of these novels will grab a young reader’s attention – a boy who is invulnerable, a boy who lives on a huge ship the size of a city, a boy who kills zombies. Yet, there’s substance here that goes beyond shallow exploration. In Thirteen Days to Midnight, Jacob learns that being indestructible doesn’t mean you can’t be hurt. In Worldshaker, Col learns that being privileged isn’t always easy (or fair). In Rot & Ruin, Benny Imura learns that being heroic takes a lot of effort. When my son grows up, he will undoubtedly face similar personal challenges these young characters face – I hope he faces them with the same courage and ability to learn. And maybe with fewer zombies.
Dasha Baker lives in Watertown, MA and is currently teaching at Beth El Temple Center in Belmont. This is her first piece for Open Letters Monthly.