Book Review: “Waverly Hall: Relois” by Brian Melton

This is a solicited review, and a free copy of the book was sent to me. In no way does this affect my opinions expressed here.

Cover is cool, but doesn't accurately reflect the story's tone.

Title: Waverly Hall: Relois
Series: First in a projected series.
Author: Brian Melton
Pages: 255
Published: 2010, by Lantern Hollow Press
Spoiler-free Synopsis: While staying at her mysterious Uncle Warren’s mansion, teenaged Meg O’Reilly stumbles across a portal to a dystopian world ravaged by plague and tyranny and must fight for the world’s freedom if she ever wants to return home.
Reason for Reading: Solicited review. Also the premise is interesting.
Story Re-readability: Story-wise, I would say low, because it doesn’t leave much of an impact. There were some nice characters, but none that were engaging enough to return to. The plot is okay, but carries few surprises. And the pacing was awkward, alternating between too slow and too fast. Still, if you really enjoy the book, the author has hidden numerous allusions to literature, philosophy, movies, and even video games all throughout it, and he encourages readers to try to find them all, as an extra game. I won’t be doing so, but it was fun to note some of these allusions as I read.
Author Re-readability: I’d be willing to give Melton’s next book a try when it comes out. His writing style is bland, but good-natured and with lots of room to grow. His ideas are more interesting, at least, even if their execution needs a lot of work to be worthy of them. Basically, I think he’s got some good stories to tell, but I hope to see him improve at their telling.
Recommendation: I think this is a decent book for teenagers and middle-schoolers, as they are more likely to relate to the fourteen year-old heroine and less likely to be picky about issues with style, pacing, and originality. More sophisticated readers may get a little bored or frustrated with it in parts, but it’s not without some charm. I wouldn’t put this on any must-read list, but it did provide its fair share of entertaining and interesting moments.

Key Thoughts

The plot is actually more complex than I had expected, but I’m undecided on whether that works for or against the book. Waverly Hall: Relois is loosely broken into three parts: Meg’s arrival and early weeks living at the titular mansion, her time living with a family in Relois’ dystopic city of Paucée, and her subsequent fight against the bad guys. The final part is probably the most entertaining, but also the weakest from a narrative standpoint. More neat things happen as the story approaches its finale, but they make less and less sense. The underlying story is good and could have provided a really fascinating book, but the end result is decidedly mediocre.

So let’s backtrack and start with the good stuff. Meg is a likable and fairly believable fourteen year-old girl. She’s a little bit disaffected and unhappy with her parents (who don’t understand her) and her little brothers (who are brats), but isn’t as angry and cynical as she makes out to be. Though she’s happy to plug in her iPod’s earphones and ignore the rest of the world, she’s also a reader and is familiar with a lot of classic literature, from Sherlock Holmes to The Lord of the Rings. When confronted by weird stuff, she asks reasonable questions. When confronted by human suffering, she is deeply affected. In fact, looking over her character traits, she has some clear similarities with Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time; the comparison only serves to remind us of that classic’s superiority, however. But more on that later.

The side characters are also likable and mostly well-drawn. The homey Mrs. Davidson is a warm and wise mother-figure to Meg who also engages in the book’s most explicit discussions about Christianity, science, and philosophy. The family Meg meets in Relois is interesting because it manages to be a loving and functioning unit even though its individual members have been so abused and broken by the dictatorial system. Uncle Warren is amusingly weird in much the way that Merlin is in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King…only perhaps a bit too weird, without enough reason behind his madness being revealed. He felt more like a plot device than an actual character. Though I expect him to get more development in future volumes, he needed more in this one. Another key character, named Selcwis (no prize for guessing who that’s an anagram of), is also a case of lost potential, being a man of much wisdom, humor, and some mystery, who really deserved much more development.

However, I don’t like how Meg’s becoming soldier gets romanticized it as if this is some fun kids’ story. She essentially becomes a child-soldier, yet suffers little psychological trauma. Oh she is scared often enough, sure. She’s often terrified, and confused, and desperate for adult help. But then she gets a deus ex machine in the form of a sentient futuristic fighter jet and starts cheerfully slaughtering enemy soldiers by the dozen. These scenes are admittedly more fun than much of the rest of the story because they are faster paced and contain actual victories for the good guys (and because the jet fighter’s personality, named Ai, is amusing), but they also feel contrived to be like a video game in book form. The comparison is not a positive one. Now, The Chronicles of Narnia also had teenagers killing monsters and bad guys in battle. So what’s the difference? Those were fairy stories told in broad strokes, and inhabiting a world that was clearly allegorical. But Relois is a gritty sci-fi dystopia, and the sudden shift in tone to cheerful child-soldiering is too much a contrast. It’s jarring, a bit disturbing (in a way Melton doesn’t seem to intend), and just doesn’t fit. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe teenagers weened on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games won’t see a disconnect.

That’s one of the book’s major problems: its uncertain tone. Is it a dark, dystopic sci-fi story, or a Narnia-style young adult fantasy adventure? It’s got elements of both, but they never fuse comfortably. The cover hints at a gritty, serious tale, but most of the beginning and end is relatively light-hearted. And then the dystopia of Relois and Paucée is too grim and depressing for the video-game style shenanigans that ensue when Meg escapes in a sentient jet fighter whose personality is unsatisfyingly trite. Maybe Melton was trying to keep the story from being too dark by turning that most formidable vehicle of war into comic relief, but it’s too jarring. Or take the creature Reep, a cute squirrel-rabbit-dog thing that appears randomly at the beginning and attaches itself to Meg, following her in all her adventures yet functioning mostly as a fluffy thing for her to hug when she’s scared or tired. He doesn’t serve much of a plot purpose, and his existence—especially since it is entirely unexplained—feels superfluous.

This disparity is also reflected in the art. I was excited when I first realized that the book is illustrated. Unfortunately, the pencil sketches are of a quality comparative to your average deviantArt or Elfwood teenager’s anime fan art. While I have no intention of hurting the young artist’s feelings, this book really needed more sophisticated and evocative illustrations, or none at all. I wish the artist all the best in her future drawings, and I’m sure she will greatly improve in the coming years. Another artist contributed two pictures which are a little bit better, but also far less than what the book needed. All the pictures look drawn by a teenager doodling in the margins of their notes, and this childish quality contrasts too much with some of the more serious goings-on.

The ending was mostly acceptable, but failed to explain a few things it should have. It’s understandable that Melton wants to leave lots of the lesser mysteries unanswered so they can be explored in future volumes. It gives us something to look forward to. But I think he really should have revealed more about Waverly Hall by the end. Too many bizarre things happened in the mansion near the beginning that were glossed over by the characters, but that any sane person would have angrily demanded answers to. Some explanations need to be offered in this book regarding the creature It, the potentially-living carpet, the origin or identity of Reep, and the weirdness of Uncle Warren. Not the complete explanations, but at least something that is plausible and interesting. I expect them all to be elaborated on later in the series, you can’t just have some majorly random but quite important elements like these pass without some illumination. Take Uncle Warren, for example. His behavior in his few scenes is extraordinarily weird, unpredictable, and buffoonish, and he makes some very odd choices that seem counterintuitive to things he and his servants – Mr. and Mrs. Davidson – say. By the end of the book, we get some of his history, but nothing that explains his personality or the choices he makes. That’s just the opposite of what it should be. What we need is insight into his character; some historical facts about him are useless unless they are used to do just that. But sadly, they don’t. Melton makes us wait for the promised next volume to see if he will provide anything satisfactory then.

While I share a great many of Melton’s literary inspirations, I think he is too caught up with imitating them and paying them tribute, such that his own originality and vividness suffers. If a writer can’t put down a paragraph without quoting someone else, there is little room for his own ideas. The great writers that Melton admires all had their own writing voices, their own passions, their own stories they burned to tell, and I wish he would spend more time developing his own than reminding me of theirs. This isn’t a bust of a book by any means – it’s just weak, for lack of a confident storytelling voice.

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J. Holsworth Stevenson @ The Library of Libation