There’s a quote by C.S. Lewis which says “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I like this quote. I like this quote a lot. What it says to me is that just because you’re writing for a child doesn’t mean you have to “dumb” the story down or condescend to your readers.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what James A. Owen does here. Now, that isn’t to say if you have a 12 year old who is interested in fantasy and you want to get them started on something quick and easy to read then you could certainly do worse than this. Then again, you could do better, too. The plot, which follows three new “caretakers” of the Imaginarium Geographica, an atlas of the real locations of mythical lands. The lands, though, are under attack by an evil usurper to the crown who must be stopped! Pretty standard fair, really. By the time Captain Nemo shows up in the Nautilus you’ve been expecting him for a while.
Which is part of the problem.
A sophisticated fantasy reader will see most of the twists and turns coming, especially the ones which are laid out pretty simply. Sure, that may not be such a stretch except when you’re figuring it out so far ahead of the characters that it ceases to be a fun read.
Moving on from this quibble is the idea that none of the magic systems make coherent sense. I understand that magic has it’s own logic, and we’re playing with time travel here as well, but part of what makes Tolkien and every other good fantasy writer work is that their magic and world building makes sense. The rules are not arbitrary, showing up when you need them to advance the plot. And yet, Owen not only pulls that stunt, he leaves the ending to a Dragon Ex Machina which comes out of nowhere.
I think my biggest problem with this book is that the concept is fun. It could be really clever if handled properly, but instead, it seems self-congratulatory and filled with ideas which should have been cut out after the first draft, the kind of ideas which I understand you need to get down on paper because they’re fun, but once you get them out, you should be discerning enough to understand they belong in a file of “cool things which don’t work in an actual story.”
By the time you finish, you realize the ghosts of Tolkien, Lewis and H.G. Wells would be spinning in their graves if they knew what was being perpetrated in their names. Your better bet would be to go and read their works in the original, especially if you’re young and just starting out reading fantasy.