Home > Books > Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson

Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson

Being old in body and spirit, I very rarely trespass into the YA market. If I am going to spend time on a book, I prefer that the author is trying to address adult sensibilities. In this case, however, I have found Brandon Sanderson sufficiently interesting as an author for the adult market that I decided to see what he can do in the YA market. For the record, this is the second book in the Alcatraz series. The problem with a book written by an adult for the young is that it represents the author’s attempt to match the culture of a different social grouping. This is a difficult trick. As a writer, I find it difficult to write for a specific group that I do not know and understand. For the purposes of these reviews, I write self-indulgently, not caring whether you readers are genuinely interested in what I believe. I write to crystallise what I think, as a discipline that forces me to make explicit what I would otherwise leave unspoken in my mind. When I write for someone else, the work nearly always goes through an editor before publication. This gives me perspective — someone dispassionate reading the content and making a judgement on its appropriateness is indispensable to hitting the target market. I should admit that I have never attempted to write for young readers. If I did, I would need to find groups of young people to read the drafts and tell me whether I had hit the right tone. Only asking an adult editor would seem like the blind leading the blind unless, of course, the editor has a special insight into the way the young currently think. As an aside, I note the controversy over the jacket artwork for Liar by Justine Larbalestier. This would suggest that the editorial staff at Bloomsbury are out of touch with their intended readership’s views on racism.

The curious thing about Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson is that this is metafiction for the YA market. Frankly, I am surprised that this device should appear here. Perhaps I should read more YA books. I had thought them mostly routine narratives rather than an author deliberately introducing inexperienced readers to a bag of authorial tricks. For me, the result is dissonant. I just do not know who the book is aimed at. Much of the humour is fairly juvenile in the pejorative sense of the word. Whereas Piers Anthony’s Xanth books indulge in a lunatic wordplay that, in the earlier books in the series, produces a madcap air of enjoyability, the humour here feels forced. I think Sanderson is trying too hard rather than allowing humour to emerge more naturally from the situations he is describing. Indeed, if anything, we have a fairly routine adventure story with an authorial gloss that stands as a counterpoint to the narrative. Managed well, this can result in a superior product through synergy. In this case, I do not think the parts fit together well enough.

Although some of the author’s monologuing is quite interesting in a didactic way, I find it distracting. I think it would have been better to invest effort in making a more engaging story of the conflict between the group led by our emerging hero and the Scrivener’s Bone called Kiliman. This is not to say that an editor should have directed Sanderson to write a conventional piece of fiction for the target market. There is always room for innovation. But I think the balance of this work is wrong. It would have been better as a less simplistic narrative with fewer authorial interpolations. If you are reading this as an adult, this is nothing like the fantasy fiction Sanderson specifically aims at you. This is not an Elantris/Mistborn style of book. If you are a young adult and you have read this far, congratulations! You get to make the call.

For reviews of six adult novels, see:
The Emperor’s Soul
Hero of Ages
The Way of Kings,
The Words of Radiance and
Well of Ascension
There’s another YA novel called The Rithmatist.

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