Friday, July 25, 2014

DANGEROUS by Shannon Hale

When you think of authors who write "books for guys," the name Shannon Hale probably does not come to mind. Better known for her more feminine offerings (Princess Academy, Goose Girl, Ever After High),  Hale is one of the big names in the middle grade to YA fantasy market. But her latest book, Dangerous, is a departure from the land of fairy tale and into a world in which Joss Whedon and Michael Bay would find themselves at home.

The protagonist of Dangerous is Maisie Danger Brown -- yep, Danger is literally her middle name -- the only child of a pair of eccentric scientists. Despite having been born with only one arm, Maisie dreams of being an astronaut and is elated when she wins a scholarship to an elite space camp run by a goofy, "mad scientist" character. It quickly (I'll come back to that) becomes clear that there is more going on than teen education at the space camp. Maisie and her companions end up accidentally absorbing alien technology, develop superhuman abilities, and stumble into their own version of a Fantastic Four comic book.

Dangerous is a casserole of "team of superhero" stories with a bit of an Ender's Game aftertaste. The bulk of the book deals with the kids being pursued by various agencies (commercial, scientific, political) who want to harness their superpowers for their own purposes. Maisie, who is scientifically brilliant but who has little experience with other people her own age, finds herself trying to navigate the tricky waters of friendship, destructive peers, romance, betrayal, and sacrifice at the same time that alien technology uses her mind and body as a playground. In the end, as is expected in this sort of story, the fate of the world is in her one hand.

This novel is populated with interesting characters of both genders and several ethnicities. One of my favorites is Dr. Dragon Barnes (yes, Danger and Dragon; Hale was clearly having fun here) who works for the "mad scientist" and whose devotion to her, and later Maisie, is truly touching. Plucked from a group home into adventures with extraterrestrial technology, he provides wisdom and a parental sort of love while Maisie's own parents are out of the picture. (Maisie's parents are fun characters, too, although as an adult reader I wished they had been a bit more fleshed out.) There's an odd dynamic between Maisie and her male best friend, Luther, that will probably irritate many readers but is an excellent strike for those who believe that girls and boys can, absolutely, be Just Friends. Most of the other kids in the book are a little one-dimensional, but since they (spoiler alert) seem to exist mostly as filler and/or cannon fodder, that didn't strike me as much of an issue.

The best part of this book, in a lot of ways, is Wilder. He's a formidable character with complicated motivations, mysterious and alluring and funny and powerful and utterly untrustworthy. Up until the very end of the book it's near impossible to decide whether he belongs in the Justice League or the Legion of Doom. His emotional ties pull him in two different directions, and ultimately (from an adult perspective, anyway) the question of how his story will eventually end is much more interesting than the requisite-to-YA-books-with-female-protagonists romance between him and Maisie.

Earlier, I mentioned how quickly the gist of the plot solidified. If I have a criticism of this book, it is about the pacing. Obviously, the important part of the story occurs after the superpowers are acquired -- but when weeks of the long-anticipated space camp are zipped through in a matter of paragraphs, I find myself disoriented and struggling to maintain my suspension of disbelief. In Ender's Game, we understand the characters and their motivations better for having read chapters full of practices, tests, and dormitory skirmishes. Dangerous fast-forwards through all of that, and I missed it.

Many reviews of this book focus on the thinness of some characters and the plot holes left after, I presume, paring the book down to its essential comic book plot line. I agree that Dangerous leaves something to be desired for the adult reader, but as a book written for young teens, I think it's very successful. And although the protagonist is a girl who suffers the misfortune of losing her heart, the violence, action, intrigue, and technology will captivate male readers. Fans of The Avengers and X-Men will find plenty to enjoy in this novel.

(Cross-posted at Did You Have Juice)

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