On his thirteenth birthday, foster child Alcatraz Smedry gets a bag of sand in the mail-his only inheritance from his father and mother. He soon learns that this is no ordinary bag of sand. It is quickly stolen by the cult of evil Librarians who are taking over the world by spreading misinformation and suppressing truth. Alcatraz must stop them, using the only weapon he has: an incredible talent for breaking things.
To anyone familiar with the field of fantasy literature the name Brandon Sanderson will bring to mind big fat fantasy novels, intricate, logical magic systems, in-depth world-building, his finishing of The Wheel of Time and the fact that he is one of the most — if not the most — prolific authors currently writing. And while I knew that in addition to his novels for adults he’d written several YA works, I was surprised to learn that he’d also penned an entire middle grade series. However, upon learning the title of the series is Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians I had to read it—I mean, as a librarian, how could I not? What I found in the eponymous first book of the series surprised me. While Sanderson’s world-building and magic-system-creation skills are very much on display, the book was also irreverent, funny, puntastic, and very different from Sanderson’s other works I’ve read.
The book stars Alcatraz Smedry, a boy with an unlucky habit of accidentally breaking things, sometimes just by looking at them. Alcatraz Smedry is seemingly a fantasy fiction staple: the orphan boy who discovers he has a greater destiny. On his thirteenth birthday he learns that his aptitude at breaking things is actually a special Talent and he is part of a large and important family, who are part of a magical world that co-exists on Earth called the Free Kingdoms. The book is ostensibly written by an older Alcatraz, who is writing his autobiography, which means we get to see both the awkward, but sympathetic thirteen-year-old Alcatraz, but also hear from his snarky, adult self, who sometimes is rather hard on his younger self, and is intensely irreverent in how he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly.
During his quest to retrieve the Sands of Rashid together with his grandfather, two of his cousins, and his bodyguard Bastille, Alcatraz learns the truth of what it means to be part of a family, warts and all. His genuine confusion at these people who claim to be his family and the way he connects to them and forms a friendship with Bastille was awesome, especially as they are running around fighting Evil Librarians almost throughout the novel.
Apart from being a rip-roaring adventure, Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians is also a clever deconstruction of literary tropes and devices. Sanderson plays with the form and content, which is sometimes directly explained in an aside by Alcatraz and sometimes needs to be inferred. There are also a number of references that make clear that Sanderson is not only well versed in the craft and mechanics of the field, but that he is also very familiar with its history and its present. This creates an extra dimension for older readers. Also, Grandpa Smedry has the funny habit of using alliterative phrases containing fantasy authors as exclamations, such as Hyperventilating Hobbs, Drastic Drakes, or Nagging Nixes. I had fun trying to figure out who they were just from the last names, as not all of them were immediately obvious.
Alcatraz vs the Evil Librarians was a fun first introduction to Alcatraz. While the style, especially the asides and Alcatraz’s impudence might put off some readers, for me it worked beautifully. Of course, no review of this edition of the book would be complete without mentioning the fabulous illustrations by Hayley Lazo. I really enjoyed her drawing style and the images work perfectly with the narrative. If you’re looking for a fun book to read together with your middle grader or have them start reading by themselves, then Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians is definitely worth a try.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.