Brandon Sanderson's Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians is a new twist on the young adult fantasy genre. Instead of integrating magical elements into a modern story world, the book is written to inform us that our modern world (and even our history) is an illusion that librarians want us to believe. It is written as a first-person autobiographical account, supposedly disguised as a fictional novel by Brandon Sanderson so that the librarians don’t notice and ban it from the shelves. At first I thought the gimmick was cheesy, but it definitely grew on me. The first-person writer bit is risky and could have flopped badly, but Sanderson nails it with his voice, characters, and setting.
According to Alcatraz Smedry, the Librarians want to rewrite history and the world according to their own design. So nearly everything we know in the “Hushlands” has been manufactured by them. Alcatraz, 13-year-old hero and self proclaimed not-very-good person, has lived in a series of foster homes. He has a Talent (with a capital T) for breaking things, so he doesn’t stay in one place for very long. When it comes time to claim his inheritance, the librarians beat him to it. Now, along with Grandpa Smedry, cousins Sing and Quentin, and a snarky teenage she-knight, Alcatraz must break into the Librarian’ stronghold: the downtown library. Alcatraz has to master his occulator lenses (each set does a different magic-ish thing) on the fly and reclaim his inheritance from the evil Librarians.
At first, Sanderson’s writing seems sporadic and random — like it was written by a 13-year-old boy. But his technique is a little bit of genius, and as a fellow writer I had to pause to admire it. He’ll finish off a chapter with a massive cliffhanger and then completely stop the story to talk about how bad it is for a writer to leave his readers hanging like that. But he does it anyway, because he isn’t a very good writer. Yeah right. Just like Alcatraz isn’t a very good person. He’s only the hero of the story, after all, and Sanderson is just the author of a completely enthralling novel. The random things eventually click and the frayed edges come together to complete the tapestry.
In addition to the Alcatraz series, Sanderson also has the Mistborn trilogy (described on his website as “a hybrid fantasy, heist story, kung fu epic”), several standalone books, and he has also been chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s series The Wheel of Time (after Jordan’s death in 2007).
If the Weasley clan is your favorite part of the Harry Potter series, you need to pick up Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. Its dominant asset is humor, but Sanderson never shortchanges the conflict, action, or tension. Three books are already out, and there are two more in the works. By the looks of it, Sanderson’s imagination isn’t going to run out of quirky ideas anytime soon.