Friday, April 19, 2019

Max and the Midknights by Lincoln Peirce

I've seen a lot of enthusiasm and love for Peirce's new book, including blurbs from Pilkey and Kinney, but frankly when I heard about it I thought it sounded weird. Now that I've read it, I still think it's kind of weird and there are going to be SPOILERS ahead because I can't talk about it without exposing the big twist halfway through.

So, the story is framed as Big Nate hands in a book report on Max and the Midknights for his "history" report. The story itself is done in the same graphic blend/notebook novel style as Big Nate and the art style is the same as the Big Nate cartoons.

The story opens with Max and Uncle Budrick traveling the countryside as troubadours. Max, however, doesn't want to be an entertainer, especially not one who's as bad as Budrick. After they're robbed and Max uses Budrick's broken lute to knock out the robber, they arrive at Budrick's home city of Byjovia. Budrick explains that there people are required to follow the trade of their father and he didn't want to go to knight school so he ran away when he was ten. But he assures Max that everyone in the city is friendly and kind, due to the good rule of King Conrad. Turns out, Conrad is gone and his treacherous and evil brother Ghastley has taken his place. Uncle Budrick is hauled off to be Ghastley's fool, his alternative being a dungeon or execution, and Max is revealed as a girl, and declares her intention of being a knight. With the help of a rather bumbling magician, two street children, and another new friend, Max and the Midknights set out to save Uncle Budrick, defeat Ghastley, and break the evil spell on the city of Byjovia.

The book is a weird mixture of medieval history and contemporary language and attitudes. Things like children following in their father's profession, the limitations on girls, being jailed for being a vagrant, and beliefs in wizardry and magic blend with the sometimes incongruous attitudes of the characters, using slang and making jokes like picking up a book of prophecies at a yard sale, etc. I'm not familiar enough with medieval history to recognize all the parts that are accurate though; were medieval people familiar with zombies, for example? There's also a very contemporary attitude throughout; after some initial surprise, Max's gender nonconformity is quickly accepted (a secondary character agrees that boys' clothes are easier to fight in) and King Conrad allows her to attend knight school.

To some extent, I felt there were a lot of stereotypes in the characters. Max is a spunky redheaded girl, the pudgy boy is nerdy, liking stories and making books and always looking for food. One of the street children she befriends is black, but is almost completely silent throughout the book and only at the end does he suddenly declare his own intention of being a knight with Max, although no prior discussion of his interests was made. The pudgy boy's father has a wooden leg and is shown as a child with it, so presumably something he was born with (although missing limbs would have been more common in medieval times I would guess and that's not even approaching the whole medieval attitude towards birth defects or deformity of any kind). One major historical incongruity was the complete lack of religion of any kind; there are no churches, priests, or anything similar mentioned or shown.

Verdict: It's funny yes, and I think Big Nate fans will pick it up, but the inconsistencies really made me uncomfortable and I'd hate to think of any kids, like Big Nate ha ha, using this as a guide to medieval history. In the end, it's just a fun book that probably won't have the wide appeal of Big Nate but will surely check out regularly.

ISBN: 9781101931080; Published January 2019 by Crown; Borrowed from another library in my consortium

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