Wednesday, January 19, 2011: Kids' Maximum Shelf: A World Without Heroes

Aladdin: A World Without Heroes (Beyonders) by Brandon Mull

Aladdin: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Aladdin: Keys to the Demon Prison (Fablehaven) by Brandon Mull

Aladdin: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: A World Without Heroes: Beyonders, Book 1

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present A World Without Heroes, the first in a planned trilogy called Beyonders by Brandon Mull, which goes on sale on March 15, 2011. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, has helped support the issue.


Aladdin: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Books & Authors

Brandon Mull: Architect of an Authentic Alternate World


How did the story of the Beyonders evolve? Did you have an image of the world first? One particular character?

The book that made me like fantasy in the first place was Narnia. The two things I liked were: we leave our world to go somewhere magical and different, and you have kid heroes. I always wanted to tell a story where we leave our world and go somewhere else. No matter how we get to another world, whether it's a tornado or a wardrobe, it's ridiculous. Let's embrace it. What's the most ridiculous thing I could think of and still pull off? That's where the hippopotamus came from. As I conceived of this idea of Maldor and a guy who was finding ways to leave these heroes broken, the characters started to mean something to me. I wanted the story to feel as authentic as I could, given that this is a fantasy world.

Did you plan the entire arc of the series in advance or one story at a time? Did you leave room for the plot to take you in some unforeseen directions?

I'm a big planner. I daydream about the story for a long, long time, and don't write it until I see a really cool movie in my head. I finish book one and then go to book two as soon as it's done. Before I wrote book two, I could have told someone exactly what will happen in book three. The plus side is that I set up some payoffs because I kind of know the trajectory that the characters are on. That said, it's a flexible plan as I make discoveries that improve the story, so some magic can happen as I write.

For Beyonders, you invent riffs on the human species--displacers like Ferrin, seed people like Jasher. Where did these ideas come from?

One of the things I loved about Tolkien was that he took us to Middle Earth, perhaps an ancient version of our own world, and had these very distinct races and made them feel like they had their own societies. It was such a powerful illusion that for years later, people took us to Tolkien's elsewhere. I wanted to create races but didn't want to borrow from anywhere else. It's tricky to make a race, because you want it to be different from what we've seen before, but you want them to be relatable, where they feel human-ish. I haven't seen the seed man thing before. The consequences of this characteristic are that they're wiser and also more reckless because they are born over and over.

One of the main themes in the book is, "Who is trustworthy?" Why is it important for Jason and Rachel to be always slightly off-balance?

I have always liked playing with the idea of who you can trust. In Fablehaven there's the Society of the Evening Star that wants to steal artifacts from them. You have some characters who seem great but who are actually spies. In Candy Shop War you have magicians giving the kids candy that gives them magical powers, which seems great at first. But then they have to do what the magicians ask of them. It's a very fun thing to play with. It makes you engage with the characters and wonder and guess about everyone's motives. In Beyonders, we have this regime where the broken heroes--who might be good deep down--seem weird on the outside, like Ned or the Blind King. Dangler [who helps Jason gain an audience with Copernum], with his background, he's the one who's slowest to trust. All those characters will figure into the rest of the story in fairly important ways. One of the things we see happening in this book is the convenient thing isn't always the best thing. Maldor is the master of misdirection.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Jasher: "For each of us, destiny is a blend of potential, circumstances, and choices. You could flee and hide. You could bargain with Maldor. You have chosen a heroic path. Walk it without apology." This really gets at the heart of Jason and Rachel's journey. To what degree is that your own belief?

That quote is stating something I believe is true. You see guys who went astray in different ways, and you have guys trying to get their self-respect back. You can be a great warrior and be a jerk. It's the choices you make, what you stand for, what you're willing to fight for. It's not a new question, but I thought it was a new way to look at the question.

Much of the feast exploits the worst of human failings. The lumba, or "hunger" berries, for instance, about which Drake (another seed person) says, "No other food tastes more divine.... But a person who regularly consumes the berries rarely lasts long." Did you begin with the foible and follow it to its logical end?

If you look at the lumba berries, you can think of an alcoholic or someone hooked on drugs. We can tackle real-world issues in novel ways in fantasy, and put a little distance between the reader and the real-world issues, such as an addictive substance that leaves you worse off than when you found it. I have this hope that if you have conscientious characters facing tough choices, those kinds of conversations will arise--regarding moral dilemmas, etc.

Same with examining a world where heroes fall. If you look around our world, we have fallen heroes: sports heroes, actors, politicians. Historically those have been our heroes. In all those categories of people--if you're looking to them as heroes--they keep letting us down. It's fun to talk about that kind of thing without naming names, and in a way that doesn't feel personal or insulting. Everyone on Earth screws up. There's always a chance at redemption for anyone.


Aladdin: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Author and Editor: Unplugged

Brandon Mull and his editor, Liesa Abrams, take us behind the scenes for a rare glimpse of the privileged author-editor relationship. Far from taking each other (or themselves) too seriously, it looks like these two fantasy fans had a lot of fun working on Beyonders.


Brandon Mull: You've helped shape Beyonders in some important ways. What do you think was your best suggestion?

Liesa Abrams: I would say adding Rachel so that Jason had a fellow Beyonder on his journey. Not only is she another great character whose own story becomes equally compelling, but their interaction is hilarious and shows off your great knack for writing humor!


BM: If you crossed over from our world to Lyrian, which character would you most want watching your back and why?

LA: The Blind King--ironically, and, I guess, metaphorically! He's not only brave but wise, in how he uses his misfortune to ultimately protect himself. Plus, I like a hero who holds back some of what he's capable of, and now that I've seen what he can do from reading the draft of Book Two... oops, I can't say any more about that yet!


BM: Which Beyonders action figure would you most want on your shelf?

LA: Definitely the Displacer so I could play with its detachable limbs! Except I'd worry about losing some of the parts.


BM: What location in Lyrian would you most want to visit?

LA: The Pythoness's tree in the Sunken Lands. The idea of being somewhere where my memories could be utterly different from anywhere else is very alluring--a chance to almost become a completely different person for brief periods of time!


BM: You're a huge Batman fan. Are any elements of what you love about Batman present in Beyonders?

LA: The best villains in Batman stories are never just trying to kill Batman; they're looking to manipulate and completely break him, which is so much more terrifying. Jason is facing an enemy like that in the Emperor Maldor--someone who turns your strengths into weaknesses, someone who is brilliant and horrifyingly patient. I'd love to see what would happen if Maldor took on the Joker....


BM: Does Beyonders have the potential to become a lunch box? Explain.

LA: It better! With variant illustrations, too--I want the limited edition one featuring Jason falling into the hippo.


Book Brahmin: Brandon Mull

Brandon Mull's debut series, Fablehaven, hit the bestseller lists and put him on the map. As he puts it, that world, set in a hidden nature refuge called Fablehaven, is "mostly populated by creatures we've heard of before--magical creatures with another spin, with my own rules about how they interact." But in Beyonders, he creates entirely new permutations of the human species. Here he discusses the books that have shaped him as reader and writer. Mull lives in Utah with his wife, Mary, his "first editor."

On your nightstand now:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Chronicles of Narnia.

Your top five authors:

C.S. Lewis (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe made me into a reader); J.R.R. Tolkien (hooked me forever on fantasy);  J.K. Rowling (led me into the category where I currently write); Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game was my favorite book in high school); and J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye was my favorite mandatory read in school).

Book you've faked reading:

The Scarlet Letter (I skimmed enough to pass the test).

Book you are an evangelist for:

Ender's Game (especially for reluctant reader teen boys).

Book you've bought for the cover:

The Graveyard Book.

Book that changed your life:

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It didn't turn me into an objectivist, but I connected strongly to much of what I read.

Favorite line from a book:

"The clerk smiled like he'd learned how from a book." --Terry Pratchett (might be a paraphrase, I think it was from Mort).

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Lord of the Rings.


Book Review

Children's Review: A World Without Heroes: Beyonders, Book 1

A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull (Aladdin Paperbacks, $19.99 Hardcover, 9781416997924, March 2011)

With this first entry in his Beyonders series, Brandon Mull (the Fablehaven series) invents some details and plot twists that even devoted fantasy fans will not have seen before. A hero entering a passageway to an alternate universe is not new. But a teenager traveling through the digestive tract of a hippopotamus? That's new. Displacers who can have a head in one place and their limbs in another? Seed people who can replant the seed at the base of their necks and "resprout," with all of their former memories intact? These are just a few of the pleasures that await you.

Thirteen-year-old Jason Walker, who works in a zoo in Vista, Colo., thinks he hears music coming from the hippo's enclosure. As he gets closer, the notes seem to be emanating from the hippo itself. Then, before he knows it, he falls into the animal's tank, the hippo opens its giant jaws, and down the hatch he goes, traveling through the animal's internal organs, and exiting on a riverbank in a world called Lyrian. Nine musicians on a barge float by, the source of the music Jason heard. It's the perfect start to an adventure filled with such reality benders. The author offers clues to the oddities of this alien land through the strange strains of the music and the attire of the other spectators. The first thing Jason learns is that the musicians are floating toward a dangerous waterfall. He tries to stop them and discovers that he's meddling with Fate; the townspeople resent his attempt at heroics, and he must flee the scene. Jason takes refuge in a remote and immense structure called the Repository of Learning, where a bespectacled Loremaster greets him. The Loremaster tells him about this world he's entered, and about its emperor, a dark wizard called Maldor. He also tells Jason of a forbidden room on an upper floor, which, of course, the teen investigates. There he finds a book bound in living flesh. The book describes a single Word, which, if spoken in the presence of the emperor, will lead to Maldor's undoing. The book also gives Jason the first syllable, "a." The search for the other five syllables of the Word leads, naturally, to a quest. Jason also believes that his successful completion of the Word could lead to his return home to his family, his friends and his beloved dog.

On his journey, Jason meets many unusual people, perhaps none more so than the Blind King, Galloran, who perceives far more than most seeing people can. He is the only man known to have discovered all six syllables of the Word--but with disastrous results and little memory of how or where he obtained them. Still, the Blind King becomes an indispensible ally to Jason; he introduces Jason to Rachel, a fellow Beyonder (as those in Lyrian refer to people from the modern world), and gives them enough information to begin their mission. They travel to remote regions and varied terrain in search of the missing syllables. An island surrounded by Whitelake, on which "nothing floats," protects the fifth syllable; its surface hardens against pressure, but if you remain still, you sink like quicksand. A prophetess protects the sixth syllable, in a hollow tree in the Sunken Lands, with exotic mushrooms that block memory yet can reveal another portion of the mind. Mull invents a complete society and landscape while also making his characters--and his readers--feel that they're never fully on solid ground. He lays the foundation masterfully, parceling out information for readers to puzzle out the developments along with Jason and Rachel--and experience the same betrayals.

Only a rare few in Lyrian believe that Maldor can be conquered, so most have ceased to believe in heroes. In this world ruled by fear, nearly everyone puts Jason and Rachel through a test. Are they trustworthy? And who can Jason and Rachel trust? Yet heroic acts come from unlikely places. Early on, Jason encounters a woman who tells him, "Fair faces and kind words can disguise foul intentions"; still, she directs him to the Blind King's castle. Gradually, as Jason encounters more and more hopeless Lyrians, he begins to feel a "desire to be the hero they needed." One of the book's finest quotes comes from Jasher, a seed person whose many lives have given him great wisdom and who helps Jason and Rachel along the way: "For each of us, destiny is a blend of potential, circumstances, and choices.... You have chosen a heroic path. Walk it without apology."

Humor and wit abound. Jason refers to Lyrian as "Hippoland"; when he and Rachel meet, their bodies of knowledge collide in comical ways (most notably with baseball trivia). Maldor invites his greatest enemies to a seeming paradise, Harthenham, home of the "Eternal Feast." But pleasures breed addiction to delectable dishes like lumba berry pies (nicknamed "hunger berries"), and "obscene gluttony" blots out an army of defectors who've abandoned themselves. Mull constructs medieval-style villages with high fortress walls as well as tiny rural towns where bandits rule the streets. He also connects characters in fascinating ways. In the village of Trensicourt, Jason must battle wits with Chancellor Copernum to gain access to one of the Word's syllables; Copernum turns out to be the Loremaster's son (fodder for future episodes, perhaps). He demonstrates just how insular the Lyrian world is, despite its vast boundaries. Even as Mull constructs the framework for the next two installments, he brings this first Beyonders adventure to a wholly satisfying close.--Jennifer M. Brown


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