Saban is a dork on a mission. Well, dork is probably too strong a word. "Socially challenged" is a gentler way to put it. Saban is the protagonist in Dante Amodeo's Saban and the Ancient, and even though you find out pretty early that he's not an ordinary teenager, you still don't find out just how special he is until much later on.
Saban and the Ancient is the first book in Amodeo's Transformation series. It is aimed at young adults but should be enjoyable by everyone. It's full of slowly revealed mysteries that lead to other mysteries, paramilitary action, martial arts, and mutant super powers. The action starts quickly after we find Saban, a 19-year old college student, and his study partner Margo in the middle of an apparent military strike against the school. The action that follows shows that Margo is also unusually capable. More is revealed later, but not all.
The book is a progression of mysteries. As you find out more about the characters and their histories, more questions are introduced. The answers to those questions reveal more mysteries. You slowly start seeing the edges of a large conspiracy, then get a feeling of multiple conspiracies plotting against each other. Parts of Saban's past, present, and information about the organization he belongs to, the Ancient, are parceled out piece by piece, giving a good sense of discovery. Questions are raised about Margo, who is more than she seems to be. Nobody has a complete picture of the situation, but everybody seems to have a part of it.
Other people involved in Saban's life are introduced and fleshed out, many of whom have their own special abilities. Amodeo has chosen to give many of the characters code names in addition to their real names, a tactic that could have been confusing. He does a good job of helping the reader keep track of which character belongs to which code name, however.
Lots of pop references and quotes riddle the book. Some I found genuinely funny — "An accent that thick was normally peppered with the words 'moose and squirrel'" made me laugh out loud. Some fell flat — "Your mother waz a kangaroo and your fath-air smelt of elderberries" sounded just wrong to me, even knowing it was changed to refer one of the characters' abilities. Everyone will recognize at least some of the references, and most people will get a chuckle or two from them.
Occasionally Amodeo seems to use characters to push his own views, and it's done clumsily enough to seem preachy. A couple of times the characters make references to evolution — "'Mutation has never produced a generation more robust or viable than the previous,' Saban recited from something he had read. 'People confuse it with adaptation'" seems to need more explanation than it merely stemming from a college student blindly quoting from an unknown source. And "That kind of randomness makes evolution look mathematically sound" sounds more like the author speaking than something a teenage character might say.
It might have made an interesting discussion into how they got their powers, but we'll probably get that in one of the following books. The author also has a character thinking "The price of being one of the cool kids" about an aged Slavic agent's smoker's cough. Being a "cool kid" doesn't really seem to fit an old Russian spy, and it ends up sounding like a public service announcement.
Amodeo explains terms the reader might not be familiar with, especially the military jargon, such as P. E. for "personal effects." He's not afraid to use unusual words in a context that makes their meanings clear however, words such as "syzygy" and "sternutation" (which I thought was a reference to Frederick Pohl's Heechee Saga series, but it wasn't. Or maybe it was.)
Saban and the Ancient is an enjoyable read that could have used a little more polish. By the end of the book enough is shown about the big picture to be satisfying, yet enough questions are left unanswered to leave you wanting more. I'm sure the next book will answer many of those questions while posing others.