Up till now, all my book reviews have been of works which might be called stereotypically male: macho lit. Well, I got bored of ploughing my way through novels about crooks and commando raids, so I thought I’d change tack. I’ll be reviewing a few stereotypically female/girly books, to shake things up. Hence the title – I suspect some of what I review will be remembered nostalgically by someone, but I’m not female and I’m not Lindsay Ellis (you’ll never find me dabbling with “being funny”, “being successful”, “making some money” or “being in a much-posted gif where I get sausages thrown in my face”).
“Avalon High”, which was published in 2006, is by Meg Cabot, who’s written a string of novels aimed at teenage girls. She’s probably best known for “The Princess Diaries” series, which were so successful they got turned into theatrically-released films starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. Apparently there’s a film of this one too, albeit only a Disney Channel movie.
I’ll be honest with you – people tend to read/watch internet reviews for amusing snark at the expense of bad movies, books or whatever. However, once you get past the awful pink-and-purple cover clearly designed to minimise the risk of any cootie-ridden male buying it, “Avalon High” is basically a good and enjoyable book, within its genre limits. The 16-year-old protagonist, Ellie Harrison, is mostly believable, relatable and, frankly, a breath of fresh air after all the over-the-top macho dipshits from the military fiction I’ve previously written about. She’s supposed to be a nice girl from Minnesota (“Oh ya!”)who’s moved to Annapolis in Maryland, and I buy that. You’re supposed to be on her side, and I was. If you care about role models in kid’s fiction, she’s a fairly good one.
I’m pretty sure that a teenager in 2006 wouldn’t use “Not!” at the end of her sentences quite as often as Ellie does. That was the sort of thing that I used to do as a teenager in 1992 (note for kids – please don’t do that sort of thing) and it must surely have been dead fourteen years later. However, that’s a minor gripe.
I’m also not as convinced as she is that “being tall” amounts to a colossal personal flaw and definitely means she can’t be pretty, but since there are real women who seem to believe the same, I’ll let it pass.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the book’s plot is that Meg Cabot makes no real attempt to try to make much of what I would have regarded as the biggest plot twist. Ellie moves from Minnesota to Maryland with her academic parents, and at the titular high school falls in with hunky quarterback, Will, his cheerleader girlfriend Jennifer, Will’s sidekick, Lance and Will’s stepbrother and rival, Marco. As soon as I read the title and saw those names (and bear in mind, Will’s full name is A. William Wagner, as the book constantly reminds us), I thought “this is going to be a modern spin on the legend of King Arthur, isn’t it?” And blow me down if that isn’t just what it is.
Now, admittedly, I’m older and (perhaps) more widely read than the intended audience, but Cabot really hammers the King Arthur stuff home before the formal “reveal” that each of the main characters are the reincarnation of someone from the legend. Or at least, that their eccentric English teacher who’s possibly Merlin and possibly also close kin to Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer believes they are, because the ending deliberately leaves whether this is all true or not as an open question.
Ellie’s parents’ specialist subject is mediaeval history. Her mother is specifically an expert on Arthurian legend. Ellie floats around in swimming pools a lot. Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallott” gets quoted at the start of every chapter. We’re told on p.7 that she’s named Elaine after said Lady…I can’t believe even teenagers would not pick up on this at a fairly early stage. I’m fairly sure I knew about the tales of King Arthur, mostly courtesy of Rosemary Sutcliff, by the time I would have been old enough to read “Avalon High.”
To be fair to Cabot, there are a couple of twists within the twist, as it were, so being fairly up-front about this doesn’t kill the dramatic tension. But I still think it’s odd not to keep the whole “reincarnation of the court of Camelot” thing a bit more under wraps and go lighter on the foreshadowing. The other big problem I have with “Avalon High” is the characterisation of Will and Marco.
OK, Will is supposed to be King Arthur reborn, and he is being portrayed through the eyes of Ellie, who fancies his pants off. He is, inevitably, going to look heroic, insofar as an upper-middle class American teen in a fairly realistic world can look heroic. However, even taking this into account, he still behaves so impeccably that he edges towards being a Mary Sue. This kid never puts a foot wrong. His stepbrother’s a sociopath, and he tries to reason with him. His girlfriend cheats on him, and he’s calm and rational about it. Men decades older than him have been known to flip out in the same position (including the actual King Arthur, who declared war on Lancelot for his adultery), but not Will.
I’ll admit that some of the Mary Sue-dom is a bit hard to determine. Cabot is, on the whole, good at making her teenagers sound and act like convincing teenagers. For instance, to a man and woman, they do not believe the Arthur thing when they are told about it. Will is treated as profound for saying things like “unless you’re Native American, I don’t think you can go around telling other people to go back to their country” or “I want to make a difference in the world. I really do. But I don’t want to do it by blowing people up”. That’s exactly the sort of simplistic stuff you would think was pretty deep at that age, so I can’t quite tell if that’s because he’s one teenager talking to another (who fancies him rotten), and thus great writing, or because Meg Cabot still thinks that’s pretty deep, and thus bad writing.
As for Marco – well, he essentially behaves like a one-note bad guy from start to finish. We find near the end that he does have genuine reasons for resenting Will’s father, at any rate, but most of it just comes off as brattishness maturing into something even worse. Again, he is the reincarnation of Mordred, and thus pre-destined to be evil, but as with Will, it is a bit black-and-white to believe.
I mentioned earlier that “Avalon High” is set in a fairly realistic world, and with a few exceptions that could mostly be explained as non-magical if you wanted to, there isn’t really any magic in this tale of King Arthur. That’s true of a lot of the original legends too, which is a nice touch, and one thing I do like about the novel is that in manages a more-or-less realistic level of drama with a subject where you could easily go much further. The big climax involves one character pointing a gun at another. In real life that would indeed be an enormously dramatic moment, but in a lot of films or TV shows happens about every five minutes. No-one escapes underground terrorist bases single-handed in this book.
Well, that’s “Avalon High” for you. Sadly, as I am Not the Nostalgia Chick, you don’t get a sketch now. I also resisted the temptation to visit http://www.megcabot.co.uk (if the site’s still up) as urged by the cover, so I can’t bring you the “cool princess fashion tips” or “great e-cards and comps” it promises. You’ll just have to imagine me in a battered tinsel crown, probably getting bratwurst thrown into my face.