Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

Alcatraz Versus the Evil LibrariansBy Brandon Sanderson [LibraryThingAmazon]

Aside from being an orphan raised in a string of foster homes, and aside from his unnerving tendency to break everything he touched, and aside from his ridiculous name, Alcatraz Smedry was a more-or-less normal kid. At least, until the inheritance his parents left him finally got delivered. It turned out to be a bag of sand, which was weird enough; weirder still, that bag of sand was immediately stolen by an evil librarian, and Alcatraz learned that, if he didn’t get his sand back, the consequences would be dire.


I hated this book. I wish this book were a person so I could wring its neck. It managed to make me angry on a personal level, to irritate me seven ways to Sunday, and to have entire elements completely ripped off from a series I like much better. I only finished this book so I could rant about it properly in this blog, and not throwing it across the room was an act of willpower. So let’s get started!

First off, I bought the book expecting a wacky adventure. The premise is that the world as we know it is all wrong, and that the conspiracy to keep us in the dark is run by a bunch of evil librarians, who control everything. Alcatraz learns about this when his grandfather, a hero in the war against the librarians, comes to help him rescue the sands. It purports to be a real autobiography, being released as fiction in the “Hushlands,” which is where we ignorant, conquered people live. Oh, and all the goodguys are named after prisons. (Alcatraz, Bastille, Sing Sing, Quentin, etc.) And also, the heroes use magic-ish sands to make magic-ish glasses that allow them to do many mysterious things, and so on.

So first I’ll get the big one—the one that made me really angry—out of the way. It was actually a series of things. First off, the introduction of Bastille, a 13-year-old knight who assists Alcatraz and his grandfather in their quest. She belongs to an order called the Crystins. Which, I thought, was interesting, because the word is very close to, well, Christian. But I didn’t pay attention to it. Then about halfway through the book, Alcatraz sees a map of the world, which has three extra continents out in the oceans. He demands to know how that’s possible, and the answer is, “Those other continents make sense, if you think about it. I mean, a planet that is seventy percent water? What would be the point of that much wasted space? I’d never have thought people would buy that lie, had I not studied Huslander cultures.”

Did you catch that? It startled me that I did. But it’s a vague attitude—the idea that the world doesn’t waste space, which must mean it was somehow planned. Okay, that’s a really minor thing I might be reading in to. (But also, there are things in those oceans! It isn’t wasted space! Won’t somebody think of the cephalopods? And, of course, there’s the fact that the ocean is part of an ecosystem, and without it, uh, you know…life wouldn’t exist. Gosh! Wasted space, that!)

But then came the part where Alcatraz wanders into a room full of miniature, talking dinosaurs with British accents. They’re going to be executed by the librarians, because, “Something about enlarging our bones, then putting them inside of rock formations, so they can be dug out by human archaeologists.”

Okay, excuse me, WHAT? We are talking about a series where there is real, true knowledge that only the heroes have, and they’re fighting to liberate the rest of us from a conspiracy of ignorance. Or let me be clearer: the heroes, with their Christian-esque allies and an attitude of consciously-planned Earth, are fighting against a group of people who keep the rest of us ignorant by convincing us of things like the fossil record, and thus….EVOLUTION.

I can not read that as anything other than creationism. And I do not like creationism. I’m all for religion and belief in God, but there is a huge gaping void between believing in God and denying evolution. I find dropping a creationist attitude into the book to be insidious, and it took the book from exceedingly annoying to actually angering me. Your mileage may vary.

As for why the book already irritated me, well, so many reasons. Let’s start with what I referenced as the elements taken from a series I liked better. I won’t tell you what they are yet, see if you can guess just from the set up of the book’s first few chapters: Alcatraz is an odd kid, living with a foster family that doesn’t like him much. Strange things tend to happen when he’s around, things that he can’t explain. Then, on his birthday, he gets a mysterious letter. He can’t quite make sense of it, but it’s definitely linked to his dead family and a world they belonged to, a world he doesn’t know anything about—at least, not until a large, boisterous man who knew him when he was a baby appears and takes him away, telling him all about the world and how he’s expected to be a huge part of it. In fact, he may well be the hero that secret world has been waiting for.

Did you catch that? No? Then look up at the cover image again. Brown hair, kind of messy… oh, and those REALLY THICK GLASSES. Now, the glasses are a plot point, but still. Could the book be trying any harder to yell, “I am a wacky adventure and if you liked Harry Potter, you will love me!”? Because, good lord. I know that HP was, itself, a very archetypal story and not exactly blazing ground or telling a particularly original tale. But the resemblance was so direct, I was kind of amazed it was published.

But what really, really annoyed me about the book was the narration. It’s a first-person book, so Alcatraz is telling the story. And Alcatraz will not shut up. The book is full of asides where he talks about nothing directly relating to the plot or action of the story; usually these are about books and writing. Which sounds interesting until you realize that it’s four to five paragraphs of this for every event that happens in the book. And I don’t mean event like big, dramatic plot point, I mean event as in, every little thing Alcatraz does. Like opening the door. Or getting in the car. Sometimes these asides are a couple pages long. It takes away any dramatic build and wrecks the pacing. The whole book is based around one event—getting the sands back—but it reads very much like the sort of thing which should kick off an adventure in a better-paced book. Instead, it’s the whole book, because the narration gets in the way of letting things happen.

Aside from which, the narration is also incredibly smug and self-satisfied. Most of the asides, rather than amusing, are about how truly wonderful and amazing of a book it is…which it isn’t. There are a lot of bits about how evil librarians would like you to read real literature, but real literature is boring and about dead dogs and dead mothers and is all stupid, and people should read good books (like his) instead:

Actually, my experience has been that people generally don’t recommend this kind of book at all. It is far too interesting. Perhaps you have had other kinds of books recommended to you. Perhaps, even, you have been given books by friends, parents, or teachers, then told that these books are the type you “have to read.” Those books are invariably described as “important” –which, in my experience, means that they’re boring. (Words like meaningful or thoughtful are other good clues.)

Right, because god forbid anyone read literary fiction, or enjoy being challenged or thoughtful. I am usually the first person to defend genre fiction from people who claim it isn’t worthwhile, but it turns out, I can’t stand the opposite, either. There is a place for all kinds of books and stories, and it isn’t anyone’s job to talk about how terrible the other kind are. Reading that passage (and, in fact, the rest of the book), I didn’t feel like a kindred spirit who enjoys good, non-tragic stories about magic and adventure, I felt annoyed and wanted to know where the hell Alcatraz/Sanderson got off trying to tell me what kinds of stories are objectively good or bad, and what was right or wrong to enjoy.

The even more irritating thing was that it read like someone might have, at some point, told Sanderson that he had a bad habit of talking too much for no reason and instead of taking the criticism to heart—or even just blowing it off—he worked hard at making fun of whomever had dared. Because you get passages like the following, lengthy bit of stupidity at the beginning of chapter 10:

Are you annoyed with me yet?

Good. I’ve worked very hard – perhaps I will explain why later – to frustrate you. One of the ways I do this is by leaving cliff-hangers at the ends of chapters. These sorts of things force you, the reader, to keep on plunging through my story.

This time, at least, I plan to make good on the cliff-hanger. The one at the end of the previous chapter is entirely different from the hook I used at the beginning of the book. You remember that one, don’t you? Just in case you’ve forgotten, I believe it said:

“So, there I was, tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians.”

This sort of behavior – using hooks to start books – is inexcusable. In fact, when you read a sentence like the one at the beginning of a book, you should know not to continue reading. I have it on good authority that when an author gives a hook like this, he isn’t ever likely to explain why the poor hero is tied to an altar – and, if the explanation does come, it won’t arrive until the end of the story. You’ll have to sit through long, laborious essays, wandering narratives, and endless ponderings before you reach the small bit of story that you wanted to read in the first place.

Hooks and cliff-hangers belong only at the ends of chapters. That way, the reader moves on directly to the next page – where, thankfully, they can read more of the story without having to suffer some sort of mindless interruption.

Honestly, authors can be so self-indulgent.

Talk about self-indulgent. That whole passage adds nothing at all to the book. It interrupts what was, indeed, a decent cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter. By the time I finished it, I was annoyed; not at the cliffhanger, but at the narration. It gets in its own way. It destroys the suspense by taking you out of the moment, out of the story as a whole. It reads as if someone told Sanderson, “You know, the narration can be kind of clever, but don’t you think you should tone it down?” and instead of doing that, he decided to hang a lamp on it, spending more of the book talking about the book than actually telling the story. And most of it is so very smug, so very disdainful of the idea that someone might not enjoy it, and so caught on how totally awesome and great it is, that it induces the need to strangle.

On top of all that, the book tries so desperately hard to be wacky that it’s merely annoyingly random. Like, for example, I really like some of the basic concepts, like that it’s a magic talent that causes Alcatraz to break everything he touches, but when you look at other people’s talents (being late! falling down! spouting gibberish!), plus things like talking dinosaurs and references to giant penguins and the repetition of the word “rutabaga” it reads as, “Look at me! I’m silly! Aren’t I wacky? Aren’t you entertained?! This is so fun and wacky!!!!!!!”

Which… No. Wackiness and randomness can be fun and hilarious and entertaining, but if you have to yell about how fun and wacky they are, you’re failing at it. But then, if you have to devote pages and pages and pages to talking about how awesome the literary techniques you’re using are instead of just using them well… Nope. “Show, don’t tell,” applies there. Show me you’re a good writer by using literary techniques; show me you’re funny by making me laugh.

This book failed to entertain and amuse me. It failed to engage me in its story. It made me actively dislike the protagonist, and failed to interest me even a little in any of the other characters. There were, at its core, a couple of decent ideas, but the writer seems to have gone out of his way to bury them under a giant pile of stupid. And that’s without the whole creationism thing I ranted about at the beginning of this review. But on the plus side… Uh… It was written in complete sentences?

But, hell. Okay, so you want to know about that hook at the beginning? It was never explained; presumably, the writer will get around to it somewhere in the sequel. Which I will not be reading, because a hook isn’t enough to make me ever want to go near this series—or the writer—again. This book is epic fail. It is the first book in Active Voice history to get zero cupcakes, because while I was going to give it half a cupcake because I did finish it, I am of the opinion that no one else should read it, ever.

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    18 Responses to “Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians”

    1. Ingrid says:

      … Suddenly, every book I have ever read ever looks so, so much better. Thank you for reading this so I never have to.

    2. Ruth says:

      I agree with Ingrid.
      Enjoyed your articulate rant.
      Won’t buy it!

    3. Kristi says:

      Loved your review. I’ve been curious about reading the book, actually, but now I feel like I shouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. Thank you for saving me from such horrors!

    4. Nikki says:

      I don’t know if I’ll read this book because I’m not into Harry Potter or Harry Potter-ish stories but I feel that I have to say something about one of your biggest problems with the book: There is nothing wrong with putting creationism in a book or not believing in evolution. Many people (myself included) believe that the world was planned and created by God. And it is a valid belief. If you actually look at all the data, there is a lot a good evidence against evolution and not very much (if any) for it. I’m guessing you learned all about evolution in school but there are lots of good books about science that supports creation. A couple of authors I know about are Michael Denton and Dr. Jay L. Wile (I like his books), and there is Dr. Wile’s website http://www.apologia.com (I’ve never been there but it supposedly has links to information about evolution and creation), and there are videos and DVDs by Dr. Hovind (I hope I spelled his name right) which you might be able to get from the library, I don’t know. Not that you have to look at any of this stuff but to call oneself well-informed on a subject, especially a controversial subject like this, one should study both sides of it, right?

    5. Rebecca says:

      Nikki – There are a couple things about your comment I’d like to address. First, I have seen several creationist videos, and am from a very creationist-friendly town. I’m fairly familiar with it; I just disagree with it. Evidence-wise, I don’t think this is the place for that debate, but it seems to me that what it comes down to in the end is what you consider acceptable as evidence, research methodologies, etc. Based on my standards, I have not see anything to convince me of creationism, and have seen plenty for evolution.

      Second, a point I did not dwell on in the review, is that I was annoyed in part because of the way it was presented: not only was it insidious, but it was very much an attitude of, “Ha, ha, people who accept evolution were duped!” I would find that irritating regardless of what philosophy it supported.

    6. Nikki says:

      You’re right, Rebecca. It’s annoying when a book sort of mocks people who think something different than what the author believes. That’s one reason I don’t like alot of books with an evolutionist point of view, they often make fun of creationists. And I don’t find it very appealing when I find it in creationist books either. The thing is, no offense, you probably didn’t mean to, but your review seemed kind of insensitive to the creationist point of view. Please don’t be angry at me for saying so.

    7. Nikki says:

      Perhaps “insensitive” wasn’t the right way to describe it. You just seemed very angry at the thought that anyone would believe in creation (perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed so much that way if you HAD dwelled on how the presention of it annoyed you, rather than the idea of it).
      Not to sound pushy, but if you have any interest in this kind of stuff, I would still encourage you to read Dr. Wiles books, if you can find them at the library or get them cheap somewhere. They’re conversational and fun to read, and the evidence in them for creation might be different and/or better than what you saw in those videos.

    8. Rebecca says:

      Not interested, but thanks anyway!

    9. Nikki says:

      Yeah. You’re welcome!

    10. Betty Parker says:

      I am an elementary school librarian and I thought the book was very funny. I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to my students.
      It is too bad that you could not just enjoy the humor.

    11. […] Rod is an endearing first-person narrator. As I read, I couldn’t help but think that certain authors should take notes: this is how you do a book where your first-person narrator is relating events that “really […]

    12. RAB says:

      You do realize that everything that you highlighted as a “flaw” was done that way intentionally right? He is not copying Harry Potter. He is making fun of, in a light hearted way, the fantasy genre as a whole in this book. Everything, from the HP references to the curses that the grandfather uses is a reference to the fantasy genre. For example, ach curse contains a fantasy authors name (Gemmel, Modesitt, etc.) You are supposed to notice Alcatraz is bragging about the book. You are supposed to get annoyed with the rambling. You are supposed to notice the Harry potter reference at the end. In my opinion you completely missed the point of this book. It is a jewel and something any “true” reader of fantasy would enjoy.

    13. Rebecca says:

      I’m approving this comment, but it’s extremely borderline; if you’re going to comment again, please be sure to check our commenting guidelines, linked in the upper right corner of every entry.

      In response to what you’ve actually said, first, there is no one arbitrator of what makes someone a “true” reader of fantasy. Second, if the book was supposed to annoy me… then it succeeded, and in that’s success, earned its abysmal rating. Humor is subjective, and I know there are people out there who found it hilarious. In my case, I understood that the book was parody and the things I cited were intentional — I just didn’t think they were actually funny. That’s subjective. I also explained why I thought they were problematic.

      Here’s my question, and it is a genuine, non-sarcastic one: what is the book trying to accomplish by frustrating or irritating its readers?

    14. RAB says:

      Rebecca,

      If you interpreted my comment as insulting or sarcastic I apologize. My intent was not to insult. I only meant to point out that if you read this book expecting a straight forward YA fantasy novel then you will be severly dissapointed, which it sounds like you were.

      In response to your question “what is the book trying to accomplish by frustrating or irritating its readers?”

      You may know already, but Brandon is a writing professor at BYU. As he mentioned on his blog ( http://www.brandonsanderson.com/book/Alcatraz/ ) this book was inteded as a light hearted diversion from his other epic fantasy projects. He started it as a free write based on the first line of the book. He teaches writing classes at conventions, does a podcast on writing techniques, among other things. He often engages his fans in writing exersises. In my opinion, the book offered a first person view of fantasy writing in addition to the 1st person view of the character.

      Brandon wrote, “So, it might not be very surprising that I wrote something completely different in tone from the Mistborn novels. Not that a lot of the trademarks of my style aren’t here. There’s a unique magic system (two, actually). Some detailed world-building. A fast-paced ending. However, there’s also a whole lot of snark. I (through the voice of Alcatraz, the protagonist) often address the reader directly, talking about things I find funny about being a writer, about the fantasy genre, or about literature in general.”

      My advice to you is to not base your opinion of Brandon’s work on this book. While I loved this book, it is not a good indicator of what to expect from his other works. Not even close.

      Ok, I admit, the “true” fantasy reader comment was meant as an insult, but only because it seemed you thought he ripped off Harry Potter when his intent was more in line with ‘imitation is the fondess form of flattery’. To me, that was an insult to Brandon.

    15. RAB says:

      After reading your About page I can see why you hold the view of this book that you do. You come right and state where your coming from with your reviews.

      With that said, based on your own admission of being a lefty femminist, you should read Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. You will love it. Seriously.

    16. Peter Ahlstrom says:

      By the way, Brandon said on reddit that he believes in evolution.

      http://www.reddit.com/r/lds/comments/eiu9e/as_a_member_of_the_church_what_is_your_opinion_on/c18erpu

      What the dinosaurs are talking about in the Alcatraz books is so silly, it could even be interpreted as a criticism of Creationism.

    17. Rebecca says:

      @Peter, thanks for the link, good to know.

      @RAB. Um. You apologize if I “interpreted [your] comment as insulting”; but also “the “true” fantasy reader comment was meant as an insult.” Okay, then. You seem like you’re totally willing to engage in this conversation, which I genuinely appreciate (otherwise I wouldn’t bother to reply), but “I apologize if you’re insulted by something insulting,” comes across as really disingenuous.

      That aside:

      “I (through the voice of Alcatraz, the protagonist) often address the reader directly, talking about things I find funny about being a writer, about the fantasy genre, or about literature in general.”

      Here’s my issue with that: since the humor didn’t work for me — which I fully and cheerfully admit is subjective — I’m reading the book because I want to read a book, not because I want to read musings on the writing life or literature in general. When I want to read those things (and there are times), I read a writer’s blog or pick up author’s biography. Aside from whether or not the stuff was funny, I genuinely think that all of that got in the way of the story.

      As I said in the review, there were some good ideas buried in the book — but I felt they were just that, buried. The book moved at a glacial pace, and the story itself was hidden by all of the asides about reading and writing and literature in general. They serve the writer, and even the voice of the novel, but not the story. If they’d been scaled back, I think the book would have improved immensely, because it would have kept a focus on what was happening. I think there could have been a balance found between the voice and the story, but the story itself was nearly totally overlooked in favor of the voice. Thus, since I hated the voice, I hated the book.

    18. RAB says:

      Rebecca,

      I can appreciate the fact that you disliked the book. I understand that humor is subjective and that not everything will be liked by everyone. My wife and I often argue about the merits of movies like Shaun of the Dead and Airplane.

      I still disagree with your review. I feel it was unfair and misleading because you didn’t clearly state what you really disliked (the voice) or say you disliked what the author was trying to do. Instead you implied that the faults were due to plagiarism, lack of creativity, spite, or a desire to put down evolutionists, when in fact the opposite is true.

      As further example, you called my apology disingenuous when it was intentionally disingenuous. I was trying (and apparently failed) to be clever. It was a nod to the book where Alcatraz often does exactly what he said he would not do in the beggining of a chapter.

      Though it may be a stretch, I liken this book to Mel Brook’s Blazing Sadles. While some might say that movie is racist, of poor production quality, or often gets in its own way, that was the point. Mel Brook’s is calling attention to those issues by blatantly commiting the offenses.

      I appreciate that you have clarified your review in your comments. I’m not trying to convince you to like the book. I am just trying to offer a different perspective to those that may read your review and choose to forgo the book based on it.

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