Friday, May 15, 2009

Book Review: Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment


The Angel Experiment (Maximum Ride, Book 1) by James Patterson. Warner Vision (New York): 2005. Paperback, 440 pages. $6.99. ISBN: 0-446-61779-2.

We haven't had a book review since before Lent. It's been so long, I don't even remember what info to put in the header. So long, I can't think of a good tagline, which is too bad, because I'm pretty sure those cheeky little phrases I put up at the top of the reviews really help my Google hits. By the way, if you're wondering where the hey I am, I'm back in Rump's End, Nevada, where the Internet access is spotty. I will be so glad when we are finally, at last, really finished with this project and can start working somewhere closer to civilization where I will have access to the Internet, to grocery stores, to restaurants, to opium dens, and to the other amenities to which I as an archaeologist am used.

But enough about me. While here in Rump's End, having little to do in the evening besides read a good book, I have finished the first volume of James Patterson's YA series, Maximum Ride. The novel is about a group of six kids, ranging in age from six to fourteen, whose DNA has been combined with that of birds; as a result, these kids have wings and can fly. They also have super-strength and a smattering of other superpowers. Having escaped from the mad scientists who engineered them, they are now being hunted by an army of genetically engineered werewolves who shoot laser beams out of their eyes.

Now, if you're like me, you probably don't need to read the rest of this review to know if you'll like the book, because I just said, "genetically engineered werewolves who shoot laser beams out of their eyes." In my world, that's a foolproof recipe for high-quality entertainment.

Most of the narrative, with some jarring exceptions, is told in first-person by the leader of the group, fourteen-year-old Max, whose full name is, in fact, Maximum Ride, a name she picked out for herself, giving yet another example of why kids shouldn't be allowed to name themselves. Max's breezy narrative is flip and hip, replete with smart-alecky jokes that would be believable for a fourteen-year-old if only the spelling weren't so good.

The novel has one of the fastest start-ups I've ever seen. Patterson wastes no time with back story, character development, or other nonsense. When the book begins, the kids have already escaped from the lab and are holed up in the mountains somewhere. On page 14, they're already fighting for their lives against the aforementioned werewolves. Soon, the werewolves have kidnapped six-year-old Angel, so Max and the others must return to the dreaded lab in order to rescue her. Because they are kids and think like kids, their rescue attempt soon turns into a comedy of errors; they only survive because the cackling B-movie-type villains are more incompetent than they are.

Although Patterson apparently intends the novel for a young audience and shows a lot of restraint (the strongest insult in the book is dipstick), the action is frequent and brutal; every fight is a full-on slugfest with plenty of gashes and smashed faces. For some reason, the bird kids usually get the best of these fights even though the werewolves are supposed to be stronger, faster, and better armed. Good thing werewolves can't aim worth a damn or get any equipment proper for hunting flying people, like, say, a shotgun or sniper rifle. No, these idiots hunt birds with tooth, claw, and handguns. They don't even make good use of those laser eyes.

Over time, Patterson's formula starts to show: Whenever the story begins to flag, more werewolves show up and another action sequence happens. It's similar to the just-add-ninja method of keeping a NanoWriMo novel going. This is not an objection, however; it's hard to argue with Patterson's action-writing abilities. Besides that, the formula works because the action pads the plot only slightly: in the novel's second half, the story veers in a new direction as the kids search for the purpose of their existence and learn that they might just have to save the world, though for what and from what has not yet been revealed.

Let's make sure I hit the religion and morality angle, I'll mention that the kids enter a cathedral at one point and, though they have no religious training, decide, on a whim, to pray. The description of the cathedral and the experience therein is positive to the point of being belabored. It isn't clear in this first book if there's a purpose behind that as there's no clear sign yet that the series will have distinct religious elements. However, in the morality department, the depiction of genetically engineering humans and of experimenting on children is resoundingly negative, so much so that the genetic engineers are all cardboard villains, and most of their products (with the exception of our protagonists) are hideous monstrosities. The book also has a good grasp of the responsibilities of parenthood: Max is something like a surrogate mother to the other members of her "flock," and she takes the job seriously. Two members of the flock learn their parents actually sold them to the nefarious scientists, and are devastated by the information. Another learns his mother was an unmarried teenager and is similarly disappointed, though Max advises him to look on the bright side: "Maybe she was a nice kid who just made a mistake. At least she actually wanted to wait the nine months and have you" (p. 226). I suppose escaping from evil scientists who do nasty things to children would tend to make a person radically pro-life...wait, I've got it--the werewolves hunting Max must be from the Department of Homeland Security.

However, having said that, I note that Max and her pals, due to their desperate straits, accomplish much of what they do by stealing things and lying. The prevalence of stealing and lying was one of the complaints Christian reviewers have made ad nauseum against the Harry Potter series, and since Maximum Ride is a bestselling series that these reviewers couldn't possibly have missed, we will no doubt find some of the same complaints. Let's see what those Christian reviewers have to say, then--


Oh, never mind. I guess lying and stealing are only problems when you can use them to bash J. K. Rowling.

For my own complaints, I have only two small quibbles: Although most of the story is told from Max's point of view, a few chapters in the first half are in third-person. I don't like switches in point-of-view; that is one of my pet peeves, and it dramatically lowered my enjoyment of this book. Other readers might not be so bothered. As for my other complaint, Max and her friends suffer a slight overdose of wangst. I realize they've got it rough, constantly fighting for their lives and wondering if normal people could ever accept them for who they are, but the fact is, they're cursed with awesome, so their whining is unconvincing. (The werewolves, on the other hand, seem to be blessed with suck.)

Some time back, I wrote a review of the novel Broken Angel by Sigmund Brouwer. In their basic conceits, the two books are similar. Broken Angel is also about a genetically engineered winged girl trying to escape the evil powers-that-be who want to trap her. Both novels lean on action sequences, and both equate being winged with being free and escaping prison and all that. Otherwise, the novels are dissimilar. The girl's wings in Broken Angel are thematically important but matter little to the plot, whereas Max and her friends fly frequently. Broken Angel has a steadier pace and spends more time developing its characters. Also, because Broken Angel is aimed at the Christian market, it has more explicit religious elements, though as I explained in my review, I found the construction of Broken Angel's religiously founded universe hard to swallow (cutthroats are people who cut throats, not construct transparent moral tests to prevent the unworthy from joining radical Christian freedom-fighters). Comparing the two novels, I find The Angel Experiment is shallower, but serves up bigger doses of brainless entertainment. Also, unlike Broken Angel, it doesn't challenge my suspension of disbelief, though that's largely because it's openly campy and makes no attempt to be believable.

Also, because I just finished John C. Wright's Chronicles of Chaos series, I can't help but see some similarities with that, as well. Both are about super-powered children (or in the case of Chronicles of Chaos, people who act like children) fleeing evildoers who want to imprison them, and both lean on action sequences. Chronicles of Chaos, however, has more on its mind--whole encyclopedias worth of more on its mind, as in tons of Greek mythology, several philosophical systems, and a lot of physics thrown in for good measure. Not to mention the dirty jokes and the infamous spanking scene. I mention Chronicles of Chaos here because many of my readers have probably read it, and if you like its premise, you're likely to enjoy Maximum Ride as well. As far as entertainment goes, I find the two about equal, though Maximum Ride is definitely less of an intellectual challenge.

So then, my review for this novel is positive. Since it's positive, and since I'm a book reviewer full of tired clichés, I guess I'm obligated to say it, much as I don't want to. *Sigh.* Here goes: "Let James Patterson take you for a Maximum Ride." Ugh.

Content Advisory: Contains frequent violence and some scenes of torture

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Angel Experiment (Maximum Ride, Book 1):

Myth Level: What does this rating mean, anyway?

Quality: Medium-high (not the most carefully constructed novel ever, and unashamedly cheesy, but highly entertaining and deservedly well-loved)

Ethics/Morality: High (religion is positively portrayed, its underlying ethics appear good, and the language shows restraint; contains frequent violence and descriptions of mad science gone wrong that might disturb very young readers, at least if they're wimps: give them this book and tell them to toughen up)
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