by Rick Yancey
31 out of 40*
Our home city of Knoxville, Tennessee, provides the unlikely American setting for the first installment of author Rick Yancey’s series of action-packed adventures about Alfred Kropp, a literally larger-than-life teenaged hero, who, at the beginning of his first person narrative tells us “I never thought I would save the world.” Alfred is an orphan, taken in after his mother’s passing by his uncle in Knoxville. Uncle Farrell works as the night watchman at Knoxville’s largest building, which in Yancey’s novel is fictionalized as Samson Towers. Mr. Samson is a powerful figure and hidden in his office is a magical piece of lore, the mightiest weapon of all time, the sword Excalibur of the English Legend of King Arthur. Here is where we get the first swashbuckling set piece, as we learn that there are many people, including Mr. Meyers, a shady associate of Uncle Farrell, who will stop at nothing to steal the sword and hold its power. This is also where we first meet the protectors of the sword, robed figures on a mission to protect it from those who would misuse the famed sword for evil purposes.
Before Alfred’s adventure truly begins, though, he is just a high school kid, new in town, and living with the Tuttles, his foster parents. They take in a lot of local youths in a meager home in North Knoxville. Alfred attends a local high school, struggles with math, gets a crush on his tutor, Amy Pouchard with her “twangy East Tennessee accent,” and tries to figure out how to deal with playing football, a must for a kid of such gigantic stature in the football worshipping city of Knoxville. Alfred, however, eventually quits the team. Not all big guys like playing football. Alfred, lonely in his crowded foster home and “new kid” life, walks the Old City at night, stopping in local restaurants and coffee shops to pass the time and people watch. It is around this area where Alfred meets the man who will change his life forever and set up the true beginning of his first great adventure. That man is Bennacio, the last remaining Knight of King Arthur’s Roundtable. And this is where Alfred’s story turns from the story of a local kid messing with priceless history and mythology to an epic non-stop WORLDWIDE chase to recover Excalibur and restore peace to the world.
Alfred’s adventure is a mixture of the types of popular entertainment we all love. It blends the familiar worlds of every day America teen life and the road movie with, eventually, the jet-setting spy action and danger of The Bourne Identity or Mission: Impossible and the high speed chase and brotherhood elements of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Running through that is a sense of magic that stems from an exploration of "The Legend of King Arthur" that also, at times, feels something like Harry Potter, especially in some of its messages about good and evil and the sensationalism of violence.
This novel, really, has a lot to say about violence and weapons, especially through several conversations about guns vs. swords and the real power a deadly weapon can hold. In this way, it uses its violence as a message to its readers about why it entertains us and how it also causes us to question ourselves. Alfred learns a lot through his adventures, mostly he learns about himself. Like Jason Bourne, he is a man without identity, an orphan who seeks to know not only his true identity but also his true self. Through the double-crossings and misdirections and fun of Rick Yancey’s action packed adventure, Alfred learns what it means to truly be “extraordinary.”
For those reasons, this book is a home run for middle grades, even high school readers, especially reluctant male readers, though it has plenty for everybody. It has been a staple in our school library for several years, and it will grace my classroom shelves for as longs as it is in print. To my teacher friends: This book belongs in your classroom library. To my students: It is right here for the taking...or reading!! Highly recommended.