Who’s up for another middle grade Quick Read? Well too bad, because we’re doing one.
This time our subject is James R. Hannibal’s The Lost Property Office, book one of the Section 13 series, which is being hyped up as potentially The Next Big Thing in middle grade fiction, by which I mean The Next Harry Potter.
I always feel kind of bad for authors who get slapped with that designation, since none of them ever seem to come anywhere close to living up to it, either in terms of sales numbers or popularity. The thing everyone seems to forget is that Harry Potter itself was never expected to be the next big anything; if something ever does come along to knock it off the top spot, it will probably be a total surprise.
But regardless, let’s start by looking at the cover.
The title is written in that old-timey font that half of all speculative fiction novels seem to use these days, which combined with the vaguely art deco-esque symbols in the background made me assume the book was going to be a period piece of some kind (it’s not). There’s also some sort of robot beetle. I guess that’s pretty cool.
It’s a not a terribly descriptive cover, is it? It also doesn’t immediately scream middle grade, which is perhaps a deliberate attempt to give it a bit of cross-generational appeal.
AKA the unnecessary prologue
Our story begins with a pair of mechanical robo-beetles zipping across the Thames. One of them gets eaten by a fish, then zaps it with some electricity before escaping. The scene really feels like it was written with the intention of being turned into a movie, in which case mission accomplished I guess.
A pair of rather large, blue-green beetles whizzed north over the River Thames,
The “rather” in this sentence bugs me (ha ha) for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint. It just feels kind of clunky.
The beetles fly into Big Ben and zap a hapless police officer named Constable Henry Biddle, whose unfortunate name tipped me off to the fact that James R. Hannibal is American before I checked his website to confirm (he’s also a former stealth bomber pilot who’s previously written in the genre of Military Thrillers With Prominent American Flags On The Cover, which is an unexpected authorial trajectory to say the least).
It turns out the beetles were there to clear the way for a mysterious french dude, who uses a weather vane to make the wind change direction and then mutters some cryptic stuff about the protagonist.
And…that’s it. It’s kind of a weird opening chapter (or to be more accurate, prologue) since it doesn’t actually tell us much of anything apart from the fact that this book’s setting involves mechanical insects and people with magic(?) powers. I suspect it was written to indicate to the reader that the story is going to contain adventure and fantastical elements, neither of which are suggested by the next two chapters.
The story proper introduces us to Jack Buckles, our protagonist for the evening. He does not make a good first impression, mostly because the narration withholds information to an unnecessary degree.
The setup, as far as I can tell, is that Jack’s father has been missing for some unspecified amount of time, and Jack, his mother and his younger sister Sadie have come to London from Denver to find him, which involves going to a bunch of hospitals for some reason. Something acrimonious seems to have happened the previous day, which is causing Jack to act like a moody little shit to his (clearly only barely keeping it together) mother.
He nodded, still playing his game. “Yeah, Mom. Red tape. Gone all day.” He didn’t mean to sound as sarcastic as he did, but he made no effort to take it back either.
She frowned. “I know the circumstances are tough, especially after yesterday, but—”
“Tough?” Jack shifted his eyes up from the phone, just enough for a glare. It was the first time he had looked her in the eye since they got off the plane from Denver the morning before, and what he saw in her eyes caught him off guard.
She let the suggestion hang in the air, and Jack knew she wanted a response, at least a laugh or a grunt. He gave her neither.
The lack of context makes it difficult to know how to respond to this. The nature of whatever mysterious event precipitated this trip is the key factor; if it’s a case where Jack’s mother has been concealing information from him or something, then his attitude would be more understandable, but since we don’t know what happened it just seems like he’s being unnecessarily unpleaseent for no reason.
His personality actually reminds me a lot of the dude from Knights of The Borrowed Dark, who was also completely unsympathetic.
Oh, and Jack is apparently really good at finding things. The only reason I find this interesting is because the back cover told me to.
She kissed his head as she retrieved the glove, pausing for a few uncomfortable seconds to hover over him and smooth out his mop of deep brown hair. As soon as she turned away, Jack raised a hand to mess it up again.
What is it with middle grade protagonists and having untidy hair?
He tried to ignore her, nose buried in his smartphone, playing a 3-D game that required him to search goblin tunnels and orc dens for wizards’ gems,
There’s a real “greetings fellow kids” quality to this. I think it’s the fact that it’s trying so hard to reassure the reader that the author knows video games aren’t all space invaders and beep-boop noises.
Jack and Sadie argue a bit, they go down to the lobby to get some food, Jack acts like an asshole some more, Sadie claims to see their father but Jack deliberately refuses to look up from his phone to see if she’s right (this is exactly as contrived as it sounds), when he finally looks in her direction she’s vanished. That’s more or less all that happens.
So far, this book is really failing to grab me.