Monday, June 27, 2016

Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke)

Bad Unicorn
(The Bad Unicorn trilogy, Book 1)
Platte W. Clarke
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Stubby, tubby middle-schooler Max Spencer is nobody's idea of a hero. He can't even stand up to Ricky "the Kraken" Reynolds, the school bully. His best friend, Dirk, is a gamer geek with only a tenuous connection to reality as others comprehend it, and even he's more likely to save your average world than Max. Indeed, the only thing that might hint at potential is an old book Max has had for as long as he's lived, a peculiar tome called The Codex of Infinite Knowability, which displays random information and zaps most people who try to read it. He only ever brought it to school because he was desperate for a last-minute book report. How was he to know that the weird things it talks about - killer unicorns, other worlds, little edible humanoids named frobbits, and more - were real? And how was he to know that he was being hunted down by the worst unicorn of all, Princess the Destroyer, and her pet wizard, Magar the Tolerated? Now Max is supposed to be the last blood descendant of the greatest magic worker ever known, and he - along with the Codex, Dirk, a gutsy girl named Sarah, an outcast dwarf, and a remarkably unhelpful talking knife - may be the key to saving three worlds... or utterly destroying everything.

REVIEW: This could've been a very stupid book. Its humor walks a tightrope between silliness, pop culture, and satire. How does it succeed? How did it get me to giggle at concepts like a zombie duck and a sapient video game and Glenn, the Legendary Dagger of Motivation? Having read it, I'm still not entirely sure, but I was laughing most of the way through. Part of the key, though, was not overlooking the dark chasms over which that proverbial tightrope crossed. Princess the Destroyer doesn't just poke people or threaten death or scowl and cackle menacingly, like many middle-grade villains - she deals out destruction as easily as blinking. The sapient arcade game isn't just a silly homage to a sci-fi trope, but rises above its humble, two-dimensional origins. Max and his friends make mistakes that aren't just slapstick pratfalls, but that cause real problem and occasionally cost real lives. Real humor needs some dark shadows to make it shine. (That, and some of the jokes and amusing asides are aimed just a little over the heads of the target audience, but not so they'd notice; Clarke's clearly aware that grown-ups sometimes read middle-grade fiction.) Characters tend to start as genre tropes, yet often have a little more to them, all of them growing during the course of the tale. The action moves between multiple worlds, as well as between the present and a post-apocalyptic future, while following different characters, sometimes making for a bit of a tangle as the reader tries to keep track of who is where doing what, and when. But there are some interesting plot developments, and it all builds to a nice finale in which everyone pulls their weight. Overall, I enjoyed it more than I expected - possibly more than it's decent to admit - and I look forward to finding Book 2.
And on an unrelated note, if my records are correct, this is my 1300th review.

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