Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, by Brandon Sanderson


I’m now 3/4 the way through reading something by every one of the “Writing Excuses” podcast team. I’d read Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris several years ago, but decided I’d read something else and in a different style for comparison. And so when  I found Alcatraz Versus The Evil Librarians at the evil Library, I picked it up.

I nearly put it back. I knew going in that this was supposed to be comedy, and mid-grade children’s comedy at that. But somehow I hoped it would still be okay. You have to understand, I’m one of those abominable people who doesn’t really like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett all that much. They’re okay in small doses. I read the Hitchhiker series when I was a teen, and so my sense of humor was more in line at the time, and the first several Pratchett books I read were actually pretty good.

But that style of humor wears thin with me after awhile. People who feel they must constantly be clever start to annoy me, given sufficient exposure.

I hit that point by chapter two. It’s slapstick comedy, relying largely on non sequitur and breaking the fourth wall. I can take it okay when it doesn’t get in the way of the plot too much. It was almost Chapter four before the plot really gets going enough to compete with the comedy, and several more chapters before the plot started to push the comedy aside.

Alcatraz Smedry is an orphan with a talent for breaking things–so talented he gets moved from foster home to foster home in rapid succession, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. On his thirteenth birthday, however, his life gets very strange. He receives a strange package from his parents that contains only sand. Before long he’s got his social worker trying to steal the sand, an assistant social worker trying to kill him, and a grandfather he’s never met trying to convince him he’s an Oculator, and that the world is being taken over by evil librarians.

It gets worse, though the Harry Potter parallels are few.

Fortunately I did not stop reading at Chapter Two where I was strongly tempted to do so. The plot, once it gets going, and the strange world in which the story takes place, once your learning curve catches up, is actually rather interesting. The characters slowly take on more depth, and the rules of the world begin to make some sense. And either the humor element drops a few notches or I stopped noticing as much after awhile.

There are three other books in the series, which didn’t do as well as Scholastic had hoped, so no more were contracted (granted, it sounds like their expectations were rather high). Sanderson has since purchased back the rights, and it sounds like there are plans to re-release and continue the series with another publisher. I’ll probably read the next book sometime just to see if he can keep me interested (and if he’ll ever show us the flip-side of his parallel worlds, but I’ll probably go tackle one of his adult series first before then.

They’re good enough books, and there is nothing in them that a parent need be concerned about (Fablehaven is more frightening). Sanderson’s sense of humor should appeal to children closer to the intended age group than a 42-year-old guy who doesn’t adore Pratchett. I suspect my kids would like it, and I suspect their response to it would make me like it more. (Update: My eight-year-old loved it)

The pacing is lively, and once you get used to Sanderson’s style, it’s a fairly quick read. It’s silly fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously (though I wish it would a little more). It’s not bad a for a night or two of light reading.