Saturday, August 31, 2013

And I Am Outta Here

I Am Number Four
by Pittacus Lore
Published by HarperCollins
1 Out of 5 Stars

You know the most suspenseful, well-written part of I am Number Four? The cover: "Three are dead. I am number four." Pretty kick ass, huh? I certainly thought so, which is why I read it. Now I wish I had just left it on the shelf and let the power of those two lines remain my only association with the novel. 

I'm about to point out several flaws to which many people will say, "Yeah, but it's young adult fiction." To them I say that just because a novel is labeled as "young adult" doesn't excuse sloppy writing, simplistic plotting, and stock characters that make the cardboard cut-outs of Will Ferrell at the local movie theater look three dimensional, complex, and full of depth. There is some damn fine young adult science fiction out there (I offer The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins or theChaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness as prime examples of intelligent, well-written young adult fare), but I Am Number Four should not be listed among them. 

The initial premise is that Number Four (aka John Smith) is an alien from Lorien who, along with nine other children, was sent to earth as a small child to escape the destruction of his planet by the Mogadorians. The plan is for the children to survive and later return to repopulate the planet. Knowing the Mogadorians would hunt the children down, they are bound together by a charm that prevents them from being killed out of their numeric order. When one of them is killed, a spiral scar is seared into the leg of the remaining Loriens, signaling the threat level to the next in line. So far, so good. This is, unfortunately, when the whole thing starts falling apart:

1) Lorien was a planet that was being destroyed by pollution and mistreatment of natural resources by its populace. Fortunately, before it was too late, the Lorien people got their collective act together to save the planet. As a thank you, the planet gave powers known as legacies to some of the citizenry. These legacies begin to manifest as a Lorien becomes a teenager and, guess what?, if you save your planet right now, you don't just get one superpower, you don't even get two superpowers, you get a whole shitload of superpowers! These include hands that glow like flashlights (lame), the ability to communicate with animals (meh), a fireproof body (getting better), invisibility (now this could be something worthwhile), and telekinesis (Yahtzee!). The overt environmental message here is blatant and didactic: save your planet and your planet just might hug you back by giving you some really cool shit.

2) Not every Lorien receives powers. Those who got the planetary shaft in this deal became known as "cepans" whose job was to train and protect those with legacies. Why? If you have magic powers, why do you need a bodyguard? When the Lorien nine were sent to earth, each was given their own cepan to help raise and protect them until their legacies became evident. This makes a little more sense, but also raises the question of why didn't they send young adults whose powers had already matured to earth? Instead, Lorien is basically destroyed by the Mogadorians and the fate of the Lorien race is put on pause while they wait for their saviors to stop drooling and shitting themselves. Apparently, "intelligence" was not one of the legacies bestowed upon the Loriens. 

3) There's not a single authentic character in the entire novel. John is bland vanilla-ville. He complains and whines his way through the novel. Sarah's sweetness is gag-reflex inducing and, despite the inevitable romance between the two, there's absolutely no chemistry. They seem to have fallen in love in the span of 5 nanoseconds and then spend the rest of the novel swapping the vapid sweet-nothings typical of a couple in a Valentine's Day commercial for Zales. 

4) For two people who have spent the last several years hiding and trying to survive long enough to return to Lorien, John and his cepan, Henri, seem intent on getting their asses handed to them. They both know that the three other Loriens have been killed, they know the Mogadorians are closing in, and they know John is number four. So what do they do? John openly uses his powers and draws more attention to himself than a neon light outside a strip club, Henri goes and stirs up a nest of Mogadorians in a town two hours away, etc. However, do they get the hell out of Dodge? Nope. John manages to convince Henri every time that he's tired of moving and he's finally in love, concerns that are legitimate IF YOU'RE NOT FREAKIN' NUMBER FOUR! I would think all of these would take a backseat to the fact that John's number is literally up. 

5) Simplistic writing with only the vaguest descriptive touches. The one that really killed me was "It's a great house. A classic family home with bedrooms on the second floor, an attic where one of her brothers has his room, and all of the living spaces - the living room, dining room, kitchen and family room - on the first floor." What teenage boy has walked into a house and thought, "You know, this really is a classic family home? I love the layout. Very traditional." 

6) A flaw unrelated to the book: I've seen the movie previews and noted that Timothy Olyphant plays Henri (I won't lie--this, too, initially drew me to the book). Dear God, do not let this connection forever ruin Raylan Givens for me. 

I could go on, but I won't. Basically, the author has taken equal parts Superman, X-Men, and Twilight, blended them together in a concoction as delightful as swill and served it with a heaping side-order of teenage angst, a la "I feel so out of place and no one understands me. Maybe it's because I'm really different. Special. And not the short bus special, but really special special." Having said all of this, pre-teens and teens may love the book--in fact, many of my 10th grade students think it's the most awesome thing ever. I'm in favor of anything that gets them to read, but this is too predictable for most adults or teenagers with more literary sensibilities.

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