Her name is Maximum Ride. She’s 98% human, 2% bird. And the girl can fly.
Max and her flock—that is, the other five mutant kids with wings—are on the run. They escaped from the despicable School where they were created, kept prisoner, and experimented on, but their only human ally, a former whitecoat scientist named Jeb, has gone missing…or gone back to the badguys. No matter where they go, the Erasers (bloodthirsty human-wolf hybrids who obey only the whitecoats) are after them, trying to kill them…or worse, bring them back to the School.
For the last few years, they’ve been safe. But when the Erasers show up from nowhere and kidnap Angel, the youngest member of the flock, Max has to do what she’s always feared and go back to the School. The only upside? They hope that somewhere at the School is information about why they were created, and who their parents are…if they even have parents. In the second book, the search for information on their origins continues, but this time a Voice in Max’s head complicates matters by insisting that she’s wasting time which would be better spent, you know, saving the world.
First off, the category. It’s hard to classify, but I went with “Aliens Among Us” because, while about mutants instead of aliens, it’s the same basic idea; similar to urban/modern fantasy, it’s basically our world, but with a hidden science fiction element. As for the rating, I really, seriously enjoyed the heck out of these books, but had just enough frustrations—albeit, as always, a fair amount of personal preference was involved—that it hit 3.5 instead of four cupcakes.
I absolutely loved Max’s first person narration. Though it feels like the books kind of forgot this was allegedly her written version of what happened, she’s a charming narrator; her sarcasm never feels forced, and she feels genuinely young, not like an adult trying to use a young voice. And she somehow hits the balance between young and nervous and deeply jaded and wounded from her childhood. She trusts no one but the flock, but loves them deeply, and that love is her ultimate motivation for everything. Another balance she hits well as a character is her need to take care of the flock in a parental role and her frustration with not getting to be a regular kid (with or without wings). So clearly, there’s a lot going on in Max’s character, and that’s without getting into how she relates to boys (which I certainly will in a minute). My only problem is that the POV does skip around—the vast majority of the time, it’s Max’s first person perspective, but for random chapters it skips to third person for other members of the flock (and for a couple of the villains, particularly Ari, the head Eraser).There are pros and cons to switching POV; it does sometimes establish information that’s useful to the reader but Max can’t know yet, and the other members of the flock are often hilarious when out on their own. But at the same time, the scenes often don’t accomplish anything in terms of establishing necessary information, and the sudden change can be really jarring and abrupt.
My other main complaint is that the books wander like crazy, often feeling like the writer might not know where the plot is going. Members of the flock keep developing new skills—mind-reading, hacking, breathing under water, super speed, ventriloquism, to name a few, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why this happens. The Voice Max begins hearing works similarly; it’s there, but there hasn’t been a hint of what it is or why it’s there. Ditto for the saving the world thing—near the end of the second book, we get an idea of how the world may be in danger, but not a very clear one. But between the Angel’s kidnapping in book one, which kicks off the plot, and the discovery of who the real villains may be near the end of book two, a lot of basically superfluous stuff happens and the plot wanders a bit. When it’s focused (saving Angel, searching for their parents, escaping attacks) it’s fantastic; the bits that wander—probably a third of each of the books—are still pretty fun, but not as exciting. And there’s some as-of-yet unexplained retconning: in the first book, the kids learn that they did have real parents, who either gave them up or were told they died; but in the second book, they learn that they were kidnapped as infants and their parents were heart broken. So far, no explanation of why their backstories changed between books.
Oh, and there’s basically no physical description of any characters. That doesn’t bother me, as I’m not a visually oriented person, but it’s lacking to the point where I didn’t realize one of the members of the flock was African-American until halfway through the second book.
That said, I found these books awesome. They were basically everything I want in my kids’ sci-fi: a dynamic lead who can kick ass and take names (but still screws up and has to deal with the consequences), interesting (if not evenly fleshed out) secondary characters, creepy villains, superpowers, lots of action…Honestly, I think the series would work really well as a weekly TV show. But what I truly loved about these books were the relationships between Max and the other characters—her mothering towards the younger kids in the flock, her I-don’t-know-where-we-stand, not-quite-relationship with Fang, the next-oldest flock member, and the extremely conflicted emotions that she and Ari have towards each other.
First, Max is great in that her need to take care of the others feels very real. When, at one point, she breaks down everyone is freaked out—and she knows it and all she wants is for them to not see it happen, because she understands that it’s unfair, but everyone depends on her. And she wants to be the person they can depend on; the one constant in lives full of fear. All of which translates into her being kind of snappy and mad at the world, because the bottom line is that she has to keep the kids out of trouble, no matter what they want, and in the end she’s the one who’s going to make sure they have food to eat, somewhere safe to sleep, and that no Erasers are about to attack. When she does get a chance to rest, she can’t decide if she’s glad or irritated; she’s exited to find out that she can pass as a regular kid when she needs to, and that she does clean up to be pretty if she’s got the time—but blowdrying her hair is never going to be worth the time when she’s on the run, and frankly, most good fashion won’t hide a 13-foot pair of wings. She never lets her regrets that she can’t be feminine get in the way of doing what needs to be done.
And then there’s Fang. I wasn’t sold on the idea of her falling for him when she first kissed him, but it never felt as though she was being shoehorned into a relationship. The first kiss is in the first book, from there…well, things between them are pretty much awkward, with them both pretending it didn’t happen, because they aren’t sure how they want to relate to each other. When Max sees Fang kissing someone else, she’s jealous; but that jealousy doesn’t consume her. (Also, when she meets a boy she really likes and their date goes well, she’s excited…but not so excited it changes her core character. When it comes to the split-second choice between trusting him and running when she’s being chased, she runs for it. It’s a great, if sad, moment, that really shows Max’s consistency and strength.) Through the second book, the tension between Max and Fang grows—not even sexual tension, just awkwardness because she’s no longer a maternal figure to him, and not quite a sibling, either, and yet they aren’t at a point where they can acknowledge any other potential relationship between them. It isn’t rushed, or forced; I could still see it not working out between them in the end (though I suspect it will). I think the books handle that relationship really well.
The relationship between Max and Ari is also interesting, especially form Ari’s point of view. Ari was just a normal kid, who wasn’t made into an Eraser until he was a toddler—he’s chronologically seven years old, but biologically older. Further confusing him is the fact that his own father is Jeb, and all through his childhood, his father was obsessed with the flock in general and Max in particular—even leaving him behind to help them escape at one point. While Jeb was gone, Ari got turned into an Eraser, clearly hoping that if he had mutations of his own, his father would care about him more. But it didn’t work, Jeb is still more concerned about Max than Ari, and Ari can’t handle it. He blames Max and hates her for it—but at the same time is fascinated by her, in some way loves her. Not in love with her, but one of his fondest fantasies is one where they’re best friends and she’s basically his older sister and his guardian—without the flock, and if necessary, without his father. He’s truly conflicted about what he wants from Max, he’s bitter about this father caring too much about her, and he has no idea how to handle any of it—after all, he’s still a little kid, somewhere underneath all of it. (Max grasps little of this—the POV change to Ari is one of the ones that works well, because, while Max’s confusion about Ari’s motivations is interesting, it’s also pretty slow-going, where as Ari’s POV is fascinating.)
So, like I said: I really enjoy these books (I ran out and bought School’s Out the day I finished Angel, and I’m really excited for the third book [Saving the World, and Other Extreme Sports], which comes out in about a week.) They definitely have flaws, but I honestly adore Max and the flock (especially Iggy, the blink explosives genius), I’m really interested in Ari as a villain, and despite the fact that the books have some noticeable flaws, they’re solid, awesome adventures. Three and a half cupcakes.
Tags: James Patterson