Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books as a preview to see if John might enjoy them. This book reverses that trend. John read it first and really liked it so I thought I’d read it to better get an idea of what he likes.
The review blurb on the front cover says “Harry Potter meets the Hunger Games” which is a fairly good one-liner summary although in my opinion The Unwanteds falls far short of either of those series. The story takes place in Quill, a grey and desolate country ruled by the authoritarian High Priest Justine. The citizens of Quill are sorted into Wanteds (who go into the military or to the university), Necessaries (who do all the jobs Wanteds don’t want to do) or Unwanteds (those who show any sign of dangerous creativity). Once marked as Unwanted they are removed at the age of thirteen in the annual Purge. (The Hunger Games reference). At the Purge they are sent to their death. Or so they think. Turns out they really arrive at a secret magical country Artime led by Mr. Today. This country is as beautiful as Quill is grey and desolate. The students are quickly swept into their new lives, attending a school where their creative gifts are celebrated. They also discover that they can use their creative talents magically. (And there’s the Harry Potter reference.) In preparation for the day when Quill might discover their secret the Unwanteds begin magical warrior training so they can be prepared to fight if needed.
The story centers on Alex, one of the Unwanteds with unusually strong magical art talent and his twin brother Aaron, one of the Wanteds who remains in Quill and is fast rising to power. There are a lot of good things about this book. The use of art as a weapon set this apart from other juvenile and young adult fantasy books I’ve read. The plot is fast paced and keeps you engaged. Overall, it’s a good read.
However, there are some issues with the book. Since I finished it I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what it was that made it a good book but not a great book. I think the primary problem is that the world that McMann creates is not as fully realized and therefore not as believable. Artime is a magical world with no limits but entirely created by one man, Marcus Today. If he really has so much power, why not take over Quill? Alex is meant to be sort of a Harry Potter or Katniss, someone with unusual abilities who becomes the leader but it was never clear to me why he was so special. And the big “reveal” at the end that is supposed to explain a lot of the questions about how and why Artime was created seems full of holes and inconsistent with the later actions of characters.
I think McMann rushed the story and sacrificed character development and a deeper more complex book for the sake of an exciting plot off the starting block. In this first book (of course it’s going to be a series) we are introduced to these worlds, meet the characters and see the ultimate battle between Mr. Today and Justine . In comparison, in Harry Potter we have 7 books to get to the same point and a lot more details about the world we are being asked to inhabit as readers. It makes for a much richer story. The characters also seem to act in ways that are inconsistent or inexplicable. There is a budding romance between two characters (who are a bit too young for my own taste for romance) and it seems to come out of nowhere. Likewise, an unlikeable character who is Alex’s foe early in the novel ends up his friend but in a way that is never really fully explained or believable.
In comparison when I read other fantasy novels (Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Redwall, Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Wool) the alternative world becomes completely believable, almost more believable than the real world. You get the feeling when reading Rowling or Tolkien that you could ask them what breakfast cereal a minor character prefers or what the name of the great-uncle’s dog of another minor character is and they would know the answer immediately. You get the feeling that their world is multi-layered and that the books you are reading is only the surface. With this book, I get the feeling that the surface is all there is.
One final criticism that is more of a personal grievance. It annoyed me that creativity is defined solely as artistic creativity. There is no room for someone who does beautiful things with numbers or can design a bridge or is scientifically creative. No room for appreciation of physical creativity where a kid uses their body and a skateboard to do all sorts of new and exciting things. Those who are intelligent or strong are valued by Quill and therefore kept as Wanteds. This wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it had solely been that Mr. Today was only rescuing those who are purged by Quill. But it turns out that he has a hand in choosing who is selected as an Unwanted. Therefore he is choosing who is part of the Artime society and has a hand in creating this narrow definition of creativity. And since Artime is a much much better world to end up in than Quill the Unwanteds are really the lucky ones and he knows it. As much as Quill thinks they are dooming all their artistic kids to death, he knows that he is dooming all the non-artistic kids to a much more horrible life than he could give them.
I should close with saying that these criticisms are my own and not those of the almost 9 year old reader in our house. He really liked the book and wants to read the second one. He did say that the book made him a bit sad but that he liked it at the same time. I just finished the book myself so we haven’t had a chance to discuss it but I would like to hear his thoughts on some of my criticisms. I think most kids who like fantasy will like this book, it’s a good read even with the few problems. And I’m interested enough to want to read the second book in the series and see if some of the issues I had are resolved.