Thursday, July 05, 2012

"The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell," by Chris Colfer

Our Protagonists: Connor and Alex Bailey. After their loving, storytelling father dies in a car accident, they have a hard time seeing the magic in everyday life - until their grandmother's mysterious book of stories sucks them into a world where fairy tales are real.
The Rub: The trouble is, now they can't go back - unless they go to each of the kingdoms and find the ingredients to create the Wishing Spell, the only magic powerful enough to send them home.

Secondary Cast:

Froggy: A frog (surprise surprise!) who's under a curse because of his vanity. Fond of lily pad tea.

Goldilocks: An infamous outlaw who's had to live her life on the run ever since she was unjustly accused of burglary.

Red Riding Hood: Queen of the Red Riding Hood Kingdom (who'd have guessed?) - a queen who'd prefer to wear pretty dresses and pose for portraits than run her kingdom (her granny does most of the work).

The Evil Queen: Snow White's stepmother. Recently escaped from prison, she also seeks the Wishing Spell to further her life's ambition.

The Huntress: The mute daughter of the Evil Queen's Huntsman who's racing to get the pieces of the Wishing Spell before the Bailey twins do. 

Middle Grade Fantasy Convention Checklist
  • 1 Saintly Deceased Parent
  • 1 Magical-Object-Turned-Interdimensional-Portal
  • Several Nasty Wolves
  • 1 Awkward Love Triangle
  • 1 Kick-Ass Female Bandit
  • 1 Physics-Defying Arrow (it bounces of a sword, then off a wall, then hits a villain in the back and kills him)
  • 1 Well-Aimed Cannon Ball
LiveTweeted It? Yes - my better reactions are Storify'd here.

The Word: I had to admit I was a little nervous when Chris Colfer (the actor who plays "Kurt" on Glee) announced he was working on a novel - but then he gave the speech at BEA's Children's Book and Author Breakfast (where I coincidentally received an ARC of this book). He made his novel sound like a real labour of love for him, and I love fairy tales, so I was eager to give this novel a shot.

Unfortunately, The Land of Stories did not measure up - mainly because it didn't seem ready. It read like the first draft of a very young, promising, but untutored writer: the book's not missing for creativity or wit, but the writing style is amateurish, the narrative is disorganized and contrived, the tone is patronizing, and the ham-handed messages the story tries to force down the readers' throats are either vague, unhelpful, cliched, or wrongheaded.

Alex and Connor Bailey are twin siblings who are struggling to move on after the death of their father. Their mom has to work double shifts to make ends meet and they're not doing much better at school - Alex is an overachieving know-it-all who is ostracized by her classmates, and Connor is forever failing tests and falling asleep in class.

Things are so stressful they almost forget the arrival of their twelfth birthday, which their mother has to work through, but thankfully their beloved grandmother arrives in the nick of time with her bright blue car and her book full of stories. They have a lovely birthday, and while their grandmother has to leave the next day, she leaves them her copy of The Land of Stories.

As expected in a fantasy middle grade novel, the book starts glowing and humming and a few pages later the twins end up falling into the book and landing in The Land of Stories, where all the famous fairy tale characters are real. However, it's a world of dangers as well as of wonders, and they  discover the only way they can get home is to summon the Wishing Spell - a powerful magic that will require an object from every major fairy tale. Unfortunately, the notorious Evil Queen (Snow White's stepmother) has escaped from prison and is also looking for the Wishing Spell, and she'll stop at nothing to get it.

Now, this is a decent enough set-up, but The Land of Stories is hobbled right out of the gate thanks to an incredibly distracting reliance on passive language. What is passive language, you ask? Passive language is a writing style that over-relies on the verbs "to be" and "to have." Example: "Connor's eyes were bulging out of his head." The primary verb in that sentence is were, a passive verb, when it could have so easily been bulge, an active verb (as in, "Connor's eyes bulged out of his head").

Long story short, passive language is horrible and annoying because it is literally "telling instead of showing." It keeps the reader at a distance instead of placing her in the middle of the action. The whole book is written like this - the reader is simply told "this magical thing was gorgeous" or "the castle was enormous" or "this character looked sad" instead of being shown these things with description.

This, of course, leads me to my second problem with the novel: its tone. I don't know if the author has read very much Middle Grade, but there is a definite sense in this novel of "talking down" to readers. Thanks to oversimplified, passive language as well as the "moral lessons" (more on that in a bit), the novel often comes across as patronizing. I don't know about you, but kids don't like being told what to do, what to think, or what to notice - they like to discover.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot to discover here. The world building for The Land of Stories is colourful, but disappointingly undefined and convenient. The minute the twins mope that they'll never find that one thing they're looking for - that one thing or the one person who could produce that one thing miraculously turns up and hands it to them.

My last problem was with the book's "moral lessons." Now, normally I'd let such things lie, because everything about literature is pretty much open to interpretation, but The Land of Stories proves the exception because the use of fairy tales to teach social lessons is a major theme of the novel. And some of those "lessons" that are unsubtly hammered home are so uninformed and naive as to be ridiculous, but because I want this blog post to end at some point, I will focus on one.

Snow White's Evil Stepmother is the central antagonist of the book, but in the prologue, where she's sitting in prison being interrogated by Snow White herself, she quips, "What the world fails to realize is that a villain is simply a victim whose story hasn't been told." Wait, what? For most of the book, as the story keeps dropping hints about the Evil Queen's mysterious past, I hoped that this sentence would simply prove to be a woefully poor choice of words. Unfortunately, the rest of this review require spoilers, so you have been warned.

*****SPOILERS*****

By the end of the book, we learn that the Evil Queen was once an innocent woman in love who was kidnapped by an Enchantress, who then cursed her true love into a magic mirror. The Evil Queen's subsequent actions were all fueled by her desperate search to get her lover out of the mirror before he lost his identity. Now, that's an interesting story and provides a deeper motivation for the Queen's actions than simple vanity - however...

HOWEVER - the novel treats her tragic quest for love as justification for the terrible things she did. As in, the fact that she did it for love (cue singing birds) makes it okay. Her loyal Huntsman calls her a saint. All the other princesses cry when they hear the Queen's story and gush about how it was all for love (cue dancing mice) and how cruel the world was for senselessly hating her, and how nobody would give her compassion and understanding.

Yeah, how dare the world hate her - for neglecting, imprisoning, and MURDERING her subjects (including Snow White's parents!). Couldn't they offer her a little compassion and understanding when she was busy poisoning apples and ordering the Huntsman to cut out a teenage girl's heart, because it was all for LOVE (cue showers of rose petals)? Even Snow Freakin' White says the Evil Queen's "broken heart" was punishment enough for her actions - um, you mean, like HER PREMEDITATED MURDER OF YOUR PARENTS? 

And of course, this all culminates in the twins realizing that most villains are "villainized by circumstance."

How about NO. NO NO NO a million times NO. There is a difference between humanizing a character and justifying their actions. The Evil Queen's backstory does an excellent job of revealing her human motivations and frailty - does it make her a deeper, more interesting character? Sure! Does that make her a morally good character? NO. She was not villainized by circumstance, she became a villain by choice. No one forced her at dagger point to poison Snow White's parents. No one forced her to try to feed a bunch of people to wolves. She made a conscious choice to do those things and I cannot BELIEVE that such a naive, irresponsible message of the ends justifying the means would be one of the MAJOR MORALS OF THE NOVEL.

Especially since, as I recall, quite a few fairy tale heroines were dealt crappy hands by fate but nevertheless managed to avoid MURDERING PEOPLE WITH COMBS. Here endeth the rant!

*****END OF SPOILERS*****

As it is, despite a few poignant scenes and, admittedly, quite a few hilarious lines of dialogue from Connor, The Land of Stories is a profound disappointment. Its worldbuilding is inconsistent and trite, its pacing is all over the map, its writing is clumsy and immature, and it doesn't reveal as many original things about fairy tale characters as the back cover blurb would have you believe. I wish Chris Colfer all kinds of success in his acting and screenwriting career, but I won't be visiting The Land of Stories again.
D+

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is available for purchase July 17th. You can pre-order it here.

32 comments:

  1. well keep your opinion to yourself. You have actually give your review before & you dont have to post it again. What is your agenda. Fuck OFF! One opinion over 100 good positive review. So, shut up!

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    1. I'm sorry, I must have missed the memo ordering me to make my review positive. I'm sorry, but that's not how that works. Again, I don't have an agenda. I just review books and this one didn't sit well with me.

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    2. AnimeJune's agenda: Giving honest reviews of books she reads. On her own blog. Which no one has to visit if they don't want to.

      syinasu's agenda: Shutting up anyone she disagrees with.

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  2. That's one of the better explanations of "passive voice" I've read--so for that alone I love your review. I saw Chris Colfer at ALA and that made me want to read the book (yep, got an ARC)...hmmm... not so sure anymore.

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    1. There's definite POTENTIAL there. Maybe I could have emphasised that more in my review. The passive voice, the meandering linear plot, it all reads like a first draft from newer people in the critique I used to belong to.

      BUT - there is also really funny dialogue, the Goldilocks-as-an-out-law plot point was pretty interesting, etc. If he'd worked on the manuscript longer and read more middle grade and learned more about the craft this might have been much stronger.

      As it is, it still sounds like he's a strong writer with a future ahead of him provided he keeps working at it - he even has a movie coming out, which got very strong reviews. Perhaps because screenplays focus more on dialogue (which appears to be Colfer's strength) and you don't "see" the descriptive language (something Colfer needs to work on).

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    2. Stephanie Strain11:56 AM

      I also appreciated your (very clear and useful) description of the use of passive voice, when pointing out Chris Colfer's use of it in this story. The use of passive tense is something to think about for the future, but I did enjoy "The Land of Stories."

      I do wish that you had included THIS portion (points to the positive reply just overhead) in the original review, because that is pretty much what I saw, as well. I very much enjoyed Colfer's book, to the point where I ignored the passive voice and a slight tendency to re-use favorite words.

      Since it is not uncommon at all for miraculous solutions to occur in fiction, I don't have an issue with that, either. I'm guessing that you are thinking of the crying fairy? That seemed to be an intentionally ironic scene, so perhaps there are others.

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. @gleefan99 Hello Kerrie, Yet again you lurk waiting for anything negative about Chris that you can use in your Hate campaign against him. So someone didn't like his book. One person. WOW.

      I think, as with everything, some will like it some won't. However, your immediately making this person's review of Chris' book into a personal attack on the author speaks volumes about you as a person Kerrie. Stop your hating. You've hated on him since season one of Glee and you have been continuously proven absolutely wrong in your opinion of Chris as a person, a performer and as a human being. You have never met him and you don't know anyone who has. You ignore all evidence of his wonderfully, gentle, kind, humble and talented personality and just spit out your venom. Please stop and also you really need to seek professional psychological help. You are psychotically obsessed with hating on Chris. http://reconnoiterer.tumblr.com/post/20431535478/a-growing-list-of-kerrie-funnygirlgleeks-troll

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    2. Anonymous7:06 AM

      Hi kerrie. I wonder what the gaurda in Raheny would think of your further stalking and harassment of Chris, his fans and his detractors.

      Please leave everyone alone. Get a new hobby. You are only hurting yourself here.

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    3. Indeed, Gleefan99, I'm deleting your comment because I don't tolerate actual personal attacks on authors. Ethical reviewers only review the BOOKS. They don't review the author. Keep it professional.

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  4. Anonymous3:47 AM

    This is his first book. I do not like your review. It is a kids book, and what I read of it I loved. I have read only good reviews. Haters gonna hate. This review is by a Chris hater. I can read between the lines. Don't let this review stop you from reading this book. See for yourself when you read it.

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    1. Anonymous7:55 PM

      You know just because someone doesn't like something of Chris', it doesn't mean they're a hater.

      But anyway yeah people shouldn't like immediately decide to not read the book anymore because of one bad review. There's been other good reviews. and not everyone can like every book.

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    2. First Anonymous - Point #1: Whether 1st book or last book, that doesn't excuse it from needing to be well-written, original, and interesting.

      Point #2: It being a kid's book ESPECIALLY DOES NOT excuse it from needing to be well-written, original, and interesting. I really REALLY hate the common belief that kids' books can be stupid or trite because "it's just for kids."

      Do you feed your kids crap food - "because who cares, it's just for kids"? Do you send your kids to terrible schools or buy them cheap car seats or give them knock-off vitamins because "hey, who cares about the quality, they're just for my kids"? NO. Children's literature does not mean a drop in quality. Read some A.A. Milne or Beatrix Potter.

      Point #3: I don't hate Chris Colfer. If you can notice (...or read), I don't review the author - I review his BOOK, and back it up with points and reasons.

      Second Anonymous: Thank you! Exactly. You're free to disagree with a review, but negative reviews don't immediately mean an agenda.

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    3. Anonymous7:58 AM

      Chris Colfer is a fantastic actor but he should read a lot more because he wrote it like a screenplay not a book. I've read fanfiction better than that.

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  5. Anonymous6:03 AM

    Chris Colfer fans are not leaving the best impression here so let me try. Thank you for your review, I still plan to read the book myself and then see if it is appropriate for my daughter. I've read a few positive and not so positive ones but in the end I always decide for myself. The Queen issue is something I will pay attention to. The rest, even if true, will not be an issue for my 7 year old. Again, thank you for the review. Also, not everyone hates Chris if they don't like something he did and leaving these profanity messages is rather shameful.

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    1. That's a fair enough response. My mum read a lot of my books before giving them to me ... that's how she came to enjoy YA! :D

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  6. Anonymous7:31 AM

    Why do you keep deleting my comment? I haven't been rude or said anything mean.

    What I said: There's no need for Chris' fans to get defensive about the personal opinions of a review blogger. They can write their own reviews when they read the published book themselves on their own blogs. Otherwise, everyone should be respectful. And yes, I do say that as a big Chris fan myself.

    Finally, this review is of an unedited arc copy of the book and should be treated as such. Is that why you keep deleting my comment, because I pointed out that the version you read was entirely unedited?

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    1. Anonymous, I haven't been deleting your comment. If I had, it would have left the title of it up with "this comment has been deleted by a blog administrator." I suspect this may be a program glitch on your end.

      I *was* treating it as an unedited ARC - because I haven't been taking to task specific phrases or words that could be edited out, and mainly focusing on problems that are book-wide.

      For instance, I don't point out spelling errors, missed words or typos because it's an unedited ARC, and that's fine. I don't pay attention to specific lines or words unless it highlights a problem with the entire novel.

      My take on the "villains are just victims" line and the "villainized by circumstance" were used to highlight problems with the book's overall theme, not just certain phrases. The book's ENTIRE writing style is passive, so it's probable to assume the editors won't be gutting the entire style or taking out entire subplots within the span of a couple of weeks.

      Also, just a correction - ARCs are not "entirely unedited." They are not a finished product, but they have been edited and revised, etc. There may be changes to words and lines to clean it up a bit and that's why they advise writers not to quote entire paragraphs or phrases. It does NOT mean that entire storylines or themes will change. It just means the last typos and spelling errors will likely be taken out.

      Thank you, though, for pointing out that there's no need to be disrespectful. I don't have an agenda, I'm a fan of Chris Colfer's acting - I just didn't like his children's book.

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  7. (I' m french so l'm going to make (lot of) mistakes, sorry about that) I already order the book so I'm going to read it anyway, I don't think your review is bad, it's just your view.
    Your only mistake (as I see it) is to say on your tumblr "don't read it".
    You're only say that you don't like it because of a passive language whose for me a good thing, so much simple to read as a french person and posibly for kid too (and it's a book for kids). And as for the evil queen past, it's sort of a fact, I didn't read all the Grimm's brother books so I can't swear it but it's the case in the tv show "Once upon a time" so it wasn't a spoiler for me and it's not Chris Colfer idea so I don't blame him for the Evil Queen back story. As for the whole book I can wait to read it and make my own opinion!

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    1. Bonjour! S'il vouz plait, excuse ma pauvre francis. C'est un peu "rusty." :) La language passive n'est pas seulement pour les enfants. Les enfants peux lire la langage active aussi, et la language active est plus descriptive, plus interessant.

      L'histoire de la Reine n'est pas la "vrai" histoire. Ce n'etait pas dans l'originale, et il etait differente de l'histoire dans "Once Upon a Time." C'etait une idee de Chris Colfer. Ceci est pourquoi j'ai dit que c'etait un "spoiler."

      Je m'excuse pour ma pauvre francais. :)

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  8. I used to be a film major, and as such I reviewed and critiqued a lot of films so I understand all this backlash you can recieve from a negative review of something that is the work of a man with throngs of fans. People need to understand that a review is a review, it's not something written in stone that is automatically law. I respect your review, I'm hoping that LoS turns out a bit better than you see it, as I'm a huge Chris Colfer fan and I have high hopes for his future. Judging by Struck By Lightning, I'm sure in time his writing will grow and become better!

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    1. I'm actually quite looking forward to Struck By Lightning!

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  9. I find it hilarious when people start criticizing you for your reviews. HOW DARE YOU HAVE AN OPINION! I find them honest and humorous, and I appreciate that. I would never read a site where they only gave glowing reviews to the books, what is the point?

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  10. Sound like your experience with The Land of Stories was similar to mine, though you have put it much more eloquently. I could see the talent of the writer in there, but this particular book disappointed. Colfer is a talented young man so I'm hoping his next creative offering is more to my taste. :)

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  11. Anonymous5:32 AM

    Thank you for putting into words what i felt about this book.
    I'm french too so sorry for my poor english ^^
    I'm a Chris Colfer fan but i don't think the guy is a superman who poops rainbows.
    He really needs to do more research and work a little harder on the second book because this one was disappointing compared to all the good reviews i found on the internet.
    The only thing you didn't talk about and that annoy me the most was all the love stories of the book. I wanted to read about a fairy tale world and not about girls and boys kissing passionately yeurk... It was really cheesy, like Twilight cheesy... And it surprised me because he really made a point of NOT including any love story in Struck by lightning.
    Like you said, the Evil Queen harmed a lot of person and shouldn't be forgiven. I'm not sure i would forgive someone who killed my mother just because she wanted to rescue her boyfriend -_- she should have live with the pain like any good person would have. And i'm quite shocked by the fact that Chris can't see the problem in his moral.
    I would love for him to read your review because i'm sure he's clever enough to understand and take it as a way to improve his work in the future. The editing is nonexistent so i hope someone in his entourage will be brave enough to tell him one day that he has potential but there's a lot of place for improvement.
    Another thing that shows that he didn't do a lot of research : the brothers grimms weren't the first to write about sleeping beauty, cinderella and red riding hood, they wrote a version of these fairy tales but not the original version.
    Still, i'm looking forward to read the sequel and i hope there will be less love story in it lol.
    Thank you for your review i don't feel lonely anymore about the evil queen thing ^^

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    1. You're welcome! Yeah - explaining a character's actions is not the same as excusing them and I really think that's what this novel did.

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  12. Anonymous6:48 AM

    Hey I'm guessing you don't usually do this but as you weren't particularly impressed by this book would you be willing to give away the arc??

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    1. I'm afraid not. I'm still a fan of Glee and Chris Colfer so I'll still be hanging onto the book as a souvenir of Book Expo.

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  13. Anonymous10:39 AM

    Thank you for the really insightful review. As someone who has just read the book, I do agree with the issues you had with the storyplot and writing. To be honest, I was really looking forward to reading this partly because I was a big Chris Colfer fan, and he is always charmingly witty in person so I believed that would be reflected in his written works as well. However, I have to say, I was and am thoroughly disappointed with the book for a few reasons, and one major factor was the writing style. I didn't know how to term it - until I saw your review. Yes, passive! I felt really disconnected a few chapters into the book but I continued, hoping the plot would compensate. Sadly, it didn't. Yes, it turned out to be a sappy children's book but I am 17 and I do still enjoy my old Enid Blyton books. For me, it was largely the writing style that didn't work. Just my opinion.

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  14. Bella5:38 PM

    i understand what your saying because since it is a childrens book they can not make it evil or negative in which it would no longer be a childrens book.

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  15. Bella5:41 PM

    um ma'm no one here can read french so Yeah you dont need to apologize for not having good french

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  16. Bella5:43 PM

    Hello! İzləmə varsa, mənim yoxsul Francis bağışla edin. Bu bir az "rusty . " Var :) Passiv dil yalnız uşaqlar üçün deyil . Uşaqlar həmçinin cari dil oxuya bilərsiniz və fəal dil daha maraqlı, daha təsviri .

    Queen hekayə "real" hekayə deyil. Bu orijinal deyil, və bu hekayə fərqli idi " Bir Zamanlar . " Bu Chris Colfer bir fikir idi. Mən a bildirib Buna görə " spoyler ".

    Mən kasıb french üçün üzr istəyirik. :)
    If you now this language you rock

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