Today, a Warning

I suppose the title should have warned me.  One of my book club’s recent selections was Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson.  It was a departure from our usual genres.  I think we were all intrigued by the idea of evil librarians.

I for one was expecting it to be a group of really awesome evil librarians.  There are plenty of awesome villains out there, and a really cool group of sinister, book-wielding librarians sounds amazing.

Too bad that isn’t what this turned out to be.  First thing–Alcatraz is the lead character’s name, and the book has nothing to do with the island or the prison.  Second, and even more importantly–the evil librarians were a LONG way from awesome.  Nor were they an isolated group.  Instead, the premise of this book is that all the librarians of the world are engaged in a vast conspiracy to feed everyone misinformation.  And they’re painfully stereotypical librarians, with horned-rim glasses and buns, or bad bow ties for the men.

I cannot at all fathom why anyone would write a book insulting librarians.  I mean, they’re librarians! I may be particularly ill-suited for this premise, considering I have four friends who are librarians, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have an active library card.  But anyone likely to be reading this book probably likes books.  And if you like books, you probably like libraries and librarians–I mean, people who help you get free books, what’s not to love?

And what exactly is the message for kids here?  Librarians are evil and untrustworthy, libraries are dangerous, and almost any book you might pick up is both bad and foolish?  That’s the message that comes across.

Now, I do realize this book is not meant to be serious.  That comes across too.  But it never achieves quite that right tone of self-mocking to make it funny and not irritating.  It’s trying to give the reader a nice broad wink, and failing miserably.  I think it wants to be “Springtime for Hitler,” which is hilarious.  This book is not.

Not to mention, it’s just badly written.  Alcatraz is telling the story, and his goal is to prove that he isn’t actually a hero.  Rule #1 of writing is that the reader should like your lead character.  Or hate them, that works sometimes too.  If your reader is irritated and/or bored, your book is dead.  When your narrator states that his goal is to irritate the reader and he succeeds, there’s a problem.  Every chapter starts with a page or two of totally irrelevant introduction, in which Alcatraz interrupts the plot to ramble on about whether he’s a good person, whether the reader is irritated yet (answer: YES), tries to convince us everything going on is plausible and if we don’t believe it we’re just brain-washed morons, or points out the clever literary devices he’s using, for the purpose of being annoying.

Honestly, it’s like an example in how a book should not be written.

I haven’t even mentioned the plot, have I?  It’s not so bad, really.  Comparatively.  Alcatraz is an orphan with a talent for breaking things.  One day he meets his grandfather, who tells him he’s actually a member of a famous family who has special Talents, and Alcatraz begins to learn how he can use breaking things to his advantage.  His grandfather also tells him about the conspiracy of the Evil Librarians, and about an entire other society on a continent in the middle of the Pacific (knowledge of which the Evil Librarians have suppressed).  They set out on a mission to rescue a bag of really special sand that the Evil Librarians have stolen.

It’s not a terrible plot.  The Talents are entertaining, because they all sound like bad things (arriving late all the time) but turn out to be useful (the late person is constantly late for bullets, so he can’t be shot).  I like the idea of the secret continent.  I’ve often thought there was potential for a story in the idea that some basic fact is really false, but no one knows it, because how many things do we actually know from  first-hand experience?  How many of us have sailed across the Pacific?

It’s an okay plot in a terrible book.  And about that bag of sand.  The bag contains the Sands of Rashid.  You can definitely say “the sands of time” and I’ll accept “the Sands of Rashid” if necessary  But they keep on talking about the sands.  They have to rescue the sands and they have to get the sands back and the sands are really important.  “Sand” should not be plural!  It got to where I wanted to scream every time they said sands.

You know, I bet a librarian could have told Sanderson that you don’t make “sand” plural.

So why did I even finish this book?  Mostly because I knew that I’d be able to rant about it at Book Club and on my blog, and I figured I needed to finish it to be able to rant more effectively.

But you don’t need to.  Really.

11 thoughts on “Today, a Warning

  1. Homer

    Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians is actually one of my favorite books. I actually like the rants – they’re hilarious and educational. They’re also some of the most memorable things I’ve read (rutabaga). I don’t really understand why some people think this book insults librarians. The point is that you can’t trust other people to give you information, not that librarians are evil. And Brandon Sanderson is right that we often take ridiculous things for granted without any proof.

    Besides, the sequels are hilarious. I love the chapter where the dialogue is all Hamlet quotations especially (that’s in the fourth book).

    I think the books are more of an exploration of self-aware narration than an example of how not to write. They’ve got excellent plots, wonderful characters, and really interesting morals in the end, especially when we meet Alcatraz’s father.

    1. That’s cool if you enjoyed the book–obviously it didn’t speak to me, but tastes are subjective. And I didn’t read the sequels, so I can’t comment on those (although a Hamlet quotation chapter does sound fun!)

      I’m sure Sanderson wasn’t *seriously* saying that all librarians are evil, but I was bothered by the use of librarian stereotypes. I’m sure he meant it humorously, but I felt it still perpetuates a negative impression of librarians.

  2. ensign_beedrill

    Alcatraz interrupts the plot to ramble on about whether he’s a good person
    Funnily enough, this is the problem I had with Moby Dick. I tried twice and got pretty far into it the second time, and I painstakingly tolerated Ishmael’s extended inner dialog about whether he should share an inn room with a stranger or just sleep out in the lobby on a chair, but when he started giving me a breakdown of every kind of whale in existence, I just gave up. One of these days I need to finish it. But sheesh.

    I’m curious if your book club had the same reaction to the book as you did.

    If you want a story about cool librarian adventures, watch The Librarian series. It’s a series of made-for-TV movies. I guess he’s not necessarily a book librarian, but… eh. It’s like a silly Indiana Jones.

    1. You really don’t have to finish Moby Dick. Really. I was raised in the fear of Moby Dick–my mom had to read it three times for various classes and hated it. So I’ve been pretty well convinced that that’s one book I will never attempt.

      My book club actually was far more mixed about Alcatraz than I expected. Everyone was annoyed by it on some level, but I had one of the stronger reactions. Most people agreed it was pretty badly flawed. The two who actually liked it had listened to an audiobook, and apparently Alcatraz’ ramblings are less annoying out loud.

      I’ve heard good things about The Librarian…I’ll have to check it out! 🙂

      1. ensign_beedrill

        But I like the idea of the story, and everyone knows what you mean when you say “Captain Ahab.” It’s one of those classics that you wish you’d read but went and read Harry Potter or Hitchhiker’s Guide again instead. (And when I say you, I mean me.)

        I do wonder about the differing experiences you get with an audiobook and a physical book. If some books are better read and some are better listened to. I listened to Ender’s Game and it was really great. I just got sucked in. Orson Scott Card delivered his own kind of author’s note at the end and he started talking about how people keep telling him it should be a movie. He’s not opposed, but he said that people have this false idea that movies are the highest form of entertainment. You read a really good book and say, “This was such a good book, it should be a movie!” He says, well no, it doesn’t have to be a movie, it’s already a good book and some stories are best presented as books. He said this particular story was meant to be read aloud (he said that’s the way he writes from his background as a playwright), and that if you were listening to it on audiobook, then you already had it in its best form. I found that a really interesting thought.

        1. Hmm, I do understand the call of THOSE books that are always referenced. It’s how I ended up reading Wuthering Heights. The nice thing about them is that, even if they’re terrible, it’s so satisfying to have an opinion on them.

          I’m still avoiding Moby Dick, though.

          I have been meaning to read Ender’s Game for ages…onto the list. And I like Orson Scott Card’s analysis on different story forms!

  3. Sanderson’s adult books are a lot better. I’ve read some of his fantasy and it’s phenomenal, but I haven’t heard many good things about Alcatraz. I’d also like to see some awesomely evil librarians… we’re not all boring!

    1. For Sanderson’s sake, I’m glad his other books are better! I know several librarians who aren’t evil at all, but are very awesome–which I think was part of what bothered me so much about this book!

        1. Oh, how sad. I know several librarians, and they are ALL awesome! Why would anyone think that people who spend their working day surrounded by books would be boring? (And that wasn’t sarcasm, I’m sincere!)

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