Two Mini-Reviews: Bruce Coville’s “Alien Adventures” and “Unicorn Chronicles”

By Bruce Coville [Coville at LibraryThing -- Coville at Amazon]

I’m going to do something a little new, here. It’s no secret that Bruce Coville is my favorite author, and I can’t pretend to be objective about his books — I get too caught up in fangirling. I read all of these books in marathon sessions over the course of a week, so I wasn’t pausing for deep thoughts. Basically, I just want to get these book reviews out there, so I’ve decided to include two short reviews here: one of Bruce Coville’s series The Unicorn Chronicles — including the newly-released book Dark Whispers — and one of his Rod Allbright’s Alien Adventures series.

The Unicorn Chronicles: Into the Land of UnicornsThe Unicorn Chronicles: A strange man begins following Cara and her grandmother, and the incident sends her from her home town into a whole new world — literally. Cara finds herself in Luster, the land of unicorns, where she must deliver a message the unicorn’s queen. But that’s harder than it seems: not all of Luster’s creatures like humans (or unicorns). Cara soon finds herself in the middle of a centuries-old war between the unicorns and a clan of humans who have sworn to hunt them into extinction.

Aliens Ate My HomeworkRod Allbright’s Alien Adventures: Rod Allbright is a typical kid — albeit a clumsy one. Then a group of aliens crash-lands in his science project, and reveal that the school bully who torments Rod is actually a villain wanted galaxy-wide for crimes of unspeakable cruelty. Things get even worse from there when it turns out Rod’s enemy may be the only one who knows what happened to Rod’s long-missing father.


The Unicorn Chronicles: Into the Land of Unicorns, Song of the Wanderer and Dark Whispers

The Unicorn Chronicles: Song of the WandererThe Unicorn Chronicles is a series that’s been in progress for over a decade now — I read the first book in middle school. This series is a bit of a departure from most of Bruce’s stories: it’s a portal fantasy, and its strength isn’t the characters, it’s the world building and the history. Cara herself is an everykid protagonist: she’s quiet, she misses her long-lost parents, she finds herself in an amazing situation. Some of her companions are more developed than others — teen rebel unicorn Lightfood is pretty great, but a lot of the peripheral cast is light on characterization.

But the worldbuilding and backstory behind Luster is fantastic: the unicorns were driven from Earth by a clan called the Hunters (and it’s not a coincidence that that’s Cara’s last name) in what feels like it could be a real myth. The story of what happened to Cara’s grandmother and how she first met and befriended the unicorns caught me completely offguard, and I’ve never read anything like it. And the origin of the Whisperer — the strange entity that may be behind everything, even the war between unicorns and Hunters — was pretty much just fantastic.

The Unicorn Chronicles: Dark WhispersAs for the new book, it was even more of a departure: there were multiple points of view, including one from Cara’s father. (The rest of the series had stuck with just Cara.) I liked the huge scope of the story — it is truly epic — but I’m not sure all the additional POVs really worked. They increased the depth of the world and the war within it, but most of the characters were not as strong, which meant the sections didn’t work as well.

It’s hard for me to grade these; like I said, I’d been awaiting the new book for years and years, and I’m just not objective about Coville’s writing. This is a good read, but I don’t think it’s Coville’s best. It pains me to give any of his books below a four, and I think I’d have loved them a lot more if I’d read all of them when I was young, but as it is I think the series is a very, very solid three and a half cupcakes. Someday, it may be upgraded to four, depending on how the conclusion plays out — which hopefully is not going to take another eight years…

Rod Allbright’s Alien Adventures: Aliens Ate My Homework, I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, The Search for Snout, and Aliens Stole My Body

I Left My Sneakers in Dimension XSo like the Unicorn books, I started this series in middle school, but I only ever found the first two books. I managed to track down a copy of the third a couple years ago, and only just found the fourth on PaperBackSwap last month. So after a decade-plus, I fiiiiiinally know what the heck happens in the end.

These books are great, hands-down. 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 happened” and who is looking back on the story with a bit of perspective. Rod is funny, he’s got a strong voice, and that never gets in the way of his own story. (Rant over.)

The Search for SnoutThe individual books all work well: the build up to who Rod’s father is, to what the villain’s big plan is, and to how it all ties together is fantastic. Rod’s arch is also fantastic — he’s also a bit of an everykid, but the way he grows and matures to the series climax is beautifully done. But there are still elements of the story that seem to disappear or never quite tie up, as if the outline had shifted between the first and fourth books. There were also a few cases where relationships were stated instead of shown — Rod has an official mentor who he loves deeply, he says, but we almost never see them together or see Rod get any real training. Instead, we see him develop much deeper relationships with other characters, to the point where I misremembered which alien actually was his mentor until I reread the first two books.

Aliens Stole My BodyAside from that, though, the characters were great, and they tackled some cool things. Rod’s bratty cousin Elspeth also gets a lot of growth, and she and Madame Pong, the only major female alien character, actually discuss how Earth has a problem with sexism, and that the rest of the galaxy just does not think that’s okay. And I suspect there was an intentional, though subtextual, gay relationship between two of the aliens — there are a couple of very, very quick references to a them being “bonded,” and sharing a bedroom, and to them having a very deep emotional connection. I definitely did not catch that in middle school, but as an adult reader I did, and I appreciate it.

So, in the end, the last book was worth the effort it took to find. I actually loved the series even more on rereading than I did when I was a kid. The series as a whole gets four cupcakes, complete with sprinkles.

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    4 Comments »

    1. Gillian said,

      September 30, 2008 @ 8:03 am

      I did actually pick up on the subtext when I read the books as a kid. Someday I’ll get up the courage to ask Mr. Coville about it. The whole thing with Selima Khan in the last book was interesting, and screamed love-triangle to me. I figure it is definitely intentional, seeing as he deals with the issue of homosexuality in some of his other books, like The Skull of Truth, and the short story Am I Blue. I wish every book in the Alien Adventures series had been longer, to have had more of a chance to show things as you said.

      The Unicorn Chronicles isn’t my favorite Coville series, but it is a little more appealing to some young readers today, what with it having unicorns and being newer. Sadly, it is easier as a librarian to give a kid a shiny new book and say “it has unicorns and dragons,” than to hand them an older paperback about aliens and convince them that it is wonderful. Partly my own lack of booktalking skills, but also due to the much larger appeal of fantasy; thank you Harry Potter and Spiderwick.

    2. Rebecca said,

      September 30, 2008 @ 8:34 am

      That he’s dealt with gay characters in other books is why I feel comfortable saying it was an intentional relationship (I have been known to read into things in other cases *cough*). I definitely agree about Selima Khan and the love triangle, and wish that that had been fleshed out more. I also wish we’d gotten a *lot* more detail about Snout and Grakker’s pasts — it seemed like the whole thing about Rod’s father holding Snout prisoner was never really explained. The series could have been expanded *so* much further. Sad that it wasn’t.

      What’s funny about the Unicorn Chronicles is that I think they were originally a little *ahead* of the curve with portal fantasy (and I count Harry Potter as portal fantasy, personally, though I can see how that would be disputable). They were started quite awhile ago, before the explosion of HP et al. But they really aren’t Coville’s strongest series. I’m not quite sure what’s missing, honestly; they aren’t as wacky as some of his stuff, but he’s done plenty of straight contemporary fantasy (the Magic Shop books) without that edge of silliness, so… I dunno. I mean, the series is *fine*, it just isn’t remarkable, and everything else he writes *is* remarkable so that was a slight letdown. But then, I also am pretty sure that if the series as a whole was available when I was in middle school, I’d have adored it.

    3. Mary said,

      July 4, 2009 @ 10:00 am

      I loved the Aliens Ate My Homework series as a kid, but I didn’t know there was a fourth book! Dangit…Now I have to track down copies of all of them so I can read them all again! ^_^

    4. Active Voice » The Last Hunt said,

      June 27, 2010 @ 11:18 am

      [...] and the dual-climax of the Hunt and Luster shaking apart worked really well. But, as I said in my mini-review of Dark Whispers, having so many POVs and so much going on means there isn’t time for a lot of development for [...]

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