First off, I should probably admit that I’m a bit of a Gleek–even though I readily admit that Glee is something of rollercoaster in terms of quality–and Kurt Hummel is my favorite character. So I’m a Chris Colfer fan, and when I met him at BEA I kind of had a fanboy meltdown inside. True story, if one that I’m not necessarily proud of.
One thing I’ve always noticed in interviews is that Colfer seems to be a very intelligent, well-spoken guy. I was very curious about how he would turn out as a writer. Having finished his fiction debut (aimed at the independent reader/young adult market), I can say that The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is decidedly a first novel: it has its problems, but it’s a fun ride and it shows great promise.
In it, twins Alex and Conner Bailey find themselves whisked away to The Land of Stories; a place where fairy tales are real. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood are all Queens now; Goldilocks is a fugitive from justice; and the Big Bad Wolf Pack is out for bloody revenge on those who have wronged them. In order to get home, Alex and Conner must collect several items that will activate the fabled Wishing Spell when put together. Conveniently, the elements come from each of the major fairy tales and allow the twins to explore every corner of the Land of Stories in turn. But they aren’t the only ones who seek to use the Wishing Spell: the Evil Queen, Snow White’s stepmother, has escaped from prison and reunited with her magic mirror to use the Spell to her own ends. In no time at all Alex and Conner find themselves in her crosshairs as they race to be the first to collect the items.
Colfer’s writing style is similar to J.K. Rowling’s–which is good, because that’s clearly how the publisher is trying to market this book. Even the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter call back to Mary GrandPré’s stellar work in the American versions of the Harry Potter series. He certainly proves to have the wit and whimsy to pull this off. What he lacks, however, is Rowling’s plotting skills. The Harry Potter novels have a sense of danger to them because the protagonists are frequently faced with setbacks and find themselves up against incredible odds. When you get to the final installment you genuinely don’t have a clue how they’ll manage to succeed, which makes the experience of reading their adventures all the more thrilling.
This isn’t the case in The Land of Stories. To say that Alex and Conner are assisted by a small amount of luck in their quest would be a gross understatement. Every single chapter finds them in a jam of some kind, but events line up in their favor so quickly that you never have time to wonder if they’ll find their way out of the sticky situation.
The characters are also on the bland side. I know that Colfer is trying to stick to the traditional view of his fairy tale characters, where each of the princesses has a pure heart and the best of intentions, but things would have been so much spicier (and entertaining) if at least one of them revealed a hidden diva quality. Colfer even wastes the opportunity to revel in the Evil Queen’s wickedness: instead of having her be a malevolent bad-ass, he humanizes her by giving her a backstory meant to make her sympathetic.
There are also a fair share of plot holes here and there, the most egregious of which has our heroes stripped of their belongings, then in full possession of all their Wishing Spell items when they escape–with no explanation of them having recovered them on the way out.
So if I were strictly going on literary merit, I’d have to be a lot more harsh here. A lot more harsh. But then I realized something: if I were in the age range this book is aimed at, I would have gobbled it up like nobody’s business and immediately asked when to expect a sequel. The thing about Harry Potter is that it was a good read for people of all ages. The Land of Stories not so much. Colfer definitely has the potential to pull that off in the future (remember, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was significantly more of a children’s book than the rest of the series), but he isn’t quite there yet.
Based on the assumption that you’re in the right age range, or are fully prepared to do some serious suspension of disbelief, I feel comfortable doing this: