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Thinly-disguised advertisement for trading cards
on September 11, 2008
Before I dive straight into the review, let me tell you where I'm coming from. I'm seventeen. I do realize that I'm outside of the intended age range of this book, but I read and enjoy many other children's series. Rick Riordan is one of my favorite authors, so my mother, out of the kindness of her heart, saw his name on the cover of The 39 Clues and decided to pick it up for me.
The 39 Clues is about the Cahill family. They're a big family. They're a very big family. They're so big, in fact, that every major person in history has been part of this family. I bet you never knew that Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin were related. Oh, yeah, and they have family members all over the world, never mind that that it's impossible to have a Korean uncle, a British cousin, and a Russian...I don't even know what she is, without any of them being married/genetically related. Okay, clearly this is a work of fiction, so I'll just suspend my disbelief for a second. No problem. Let's continue. Grace Cahill, the head of the family (or so I believe, since it's never really explained), dies of cancer, and in her will she presents a challenge to all her relatives. They can either take the first of thirty-nine clues that will lead them to the source of the Cahill family's power, or they can take one million dollars and walk away.
Enter Amy and Dan Cahill. Dan is a hyperactive, eleven-year-old math genius, and Amy is a timid, fourteen-year-old bibliophile. Amy and Dan decide to take up the challenge, despite the fact that they (a have no money and (b don't have permission from their guardian. However, they're not alone. There are six other teams who want to maim, kill, humiliate, or steal from our young heroes, and they will stop at nothing to get what they want.
Sounds like a great premise, no? Lots of action, adventure, puzzles, clue-finding, and maybe you can even throw in a little history! Well...let's just say it didn't work out quite that way.
Issue #1: The book is copyrighted by Scholastic. For those of you who don't know what that means, it means that this was a work for hire. That means someone at Scholastic said, "Wow, I have this awesome idea! Now I need to hire someone to write it for me." Okay, not necessarily the kiss of death, but it's not a good omen either.
Issue #2: Every book in the series (and there are supposed to be ten) is going to be written by a different author. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's rarely a good thing either. When authors don't collaborate on a project, and instead are handed scripts, bad things happen, like plot holes, narration changes, and characters swapping gender. Trust me, not good things.
Issue #3: The plot is a mash-up of A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Mysterious Benedict Society...with all the intelligence removed. I solved all of the puzzles before they even came up. I predicted every "shocking" betrayal the moment the character said, "Let me help you." At least with A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Mysterious Benedict Society I had to think for more than two seconds to figure out the puzzles. No such luck here.
The 39 Clues also rips off plot elements from the aforementioned series. Amy and Dan's parents died in a fire that burned down their house, they were raised by an unfeeling guardian, and arson is a reoccurring theme in the book. How original. Oh, wait, A Series of Unfortunate Events did that five years ago. Amy and Dan are also unusually smart/talented in specific areas...just like the Baudelaires in A Series of Unfortunate Events and Remy, Sticky, Kate, and Constance in The Mysterious Benedict Society. Unfortunately, Amy and Dan are nowhere near as likable as the aforementioned protagonists, which leads me to...
Issue #4: I wanted Amy and Dan to die. Okay, maybe not die, but I didn't like them. In fact, I didn't like anyone in the book. Dan is utterly hyperactive, and he has less maturity than my five-year-old brother. Except when he's being all math genius-y, just about everything that comes out of his mouth is stupid. When Grace Cahill's lawyer gives him a warning about a mysterious group of people who may try to stop them, Dan jumps to the obvious conclusion--they must be ninjas. He continues this for the rest of the book. Every time Amy poses a question, he responds with the most inane answer possible, slowly driving the reader mad with his utter stupidity. Of course, maybe he's trying to be funny, but his answers would only be funny to a three-year-old with too much time on his/her hands.
Amy is so timid that at several points in the story I wanted to slap her. She's cripplingly shy and spends a great deal of time stuttering, bemoaning her inability to act in a confrontational situation, and being a push-over. Now, when I was younger I was also very shy, but I was by no means a weak person. Amy is weak, and she makes no effort to become stronger. She was not, to me, a convincing teenage girl, and instead was a cardboard character inserted to offset Dan's hyperactive personality. Dan's hyperactive, therefore Amy must be weak and timid. Riiight.
All of the characters are very two-dimensional, and none of them are likable...or even remotely interesting. The bad guys aren't scary, the good guys aren't sympathetic, and all of them are very, very boring. Plus, all the adults are either evil or unintelligent. Please excuse me while I make noises of disgust.
Issue #5: The book is not written in Rick Riordan's normal style. There is none of his signature humor, none of his wonderful characters, and none of his gripping narration. The 39 Clues seems like a stripped down, dumbed down version of Rick Riordan's real work (which, by the way, targets the same age group). There are no long words or complex sentences. There are very few descriptions. There is basically no humor. If Rick Riordan's normal books were Oscar-winning movies, The 39 Clues would be that made-for-TV movie that no one watches except for the kids unlucky enough to be sick on the day when there's nothing else on TV. There is no heart in the narration, and it really shows. Mr. Riordan, please do your fans a favor and never do something like this again. Please.
Of course, all these issues wouldn't really kill the book. Sure, they might turn off adult readers, and, sure, they might drive me crazy, but they wouldn't make the book anything less than it is: a fun book for kids who haven't read enough to know better. However, issue #6 is the real kicker. It's the reason that I'm bothering to write a review at all, instead of just shaking my head and ignoring the plot holes, irritating characters, and total lack of subtlety. You see...
Issue #6: Scholastic didn't publish the book to share Dan and Amy's story. It didn't publish it to appeal to reluctant readers. It didn't even publish it to make money off the books. The entire series is a not-so-elaborately constructed ruse to sell cards. The front of the book says, "Read the books. Play the game. Win the prizes." You see, if you go to [...] you too can be a long-lost member of the Cahill family. However, to break the codes (all of which are pathetically easy), find the clues (also pathetically easy), and "win over $100,000 in prizes*", you need cards. Six come in each book, but there are a total of 350 cards, and some books may contain repeats. So, of course, you gotta catch `em all and make Mom and Dad spend money to buy the card packs, hoping that you'll get that uber-rare card you need to complete your collection. Then you'll spend countless hours on the very badly constructed site, playing inane games (like an airplane flying game...which has what to do with the story?) and solving codes (which just means that you have to click on the screen until something happens).
It's not that The 39 Clues is the worst story ever written. In fact, it's average for middle school readers, even if it has completely ludicrous plot elements, irritating main characters, and less-than-intelligent puzzles and plot twists. What really riles me up, though, is that Scholastic would put such a thinly disguised piece of advertising on bookshelves. That's just not acceptable. So, spare yourself, your loved ones, your kids, your students, your library patrons, and please don't buy this book. Please. This is for the good of humanity.