D.J. MacHale,
Pendragon #5: Black Water
(Simon & Schuster, 2005)

If you like your action-driven fantasy unadulterated by such things as subtlety and character depth, by all means, read D.J. MacHale's Pendragon series. It's full of non-stop action, dangerous fantasy worlds, toothy monsters and teenage protagonists who actually sound like ordinary teenagers. In other words, if you happen to be a male reader between the ages of 10 and 14, you stand a good chance of liking Bobby Pendragon and the books about him in the ongoing series, including the fifth one, Black Water.

Bobby is your average teenage boy who is trusted with a most extraordinary task: to travel between exotic and perilous parallel worlds and prevent a shapeshifting demon called Saint Dane from destroying them all. Five books into the series, and Bobby is still at it -- with one key difference. Saint Dane has just had his first major success in corrupting a world. The rules for traveling between worlds are breaking down, and only one thing in the continuing struggle is clear: Saint Dane's next target is the fragile world Eelong. Ruled by "klees," intelligent cat-like beings who hold humanoid "gars" as slaves and livestock, Eelong suffers from both food shortages and predatory T-rex like creatures who roam the forests. By the time Bobby arrives, Saint Dane has already begun tipping Eelong toward destruction. As might be expected, it's up to Bobby, his two friends from back home and some companions he's picked up along the way to defeat Saint Dane's evil schemes that, in this episode, involve the deadly combination of poison and politics.

If you've read any in the Pendragon series, none of this will be particularly surprising. A bit like Saint Dane himself, the outward trappings change from book to book while the basic formula remains the same. As with earlier books, Black Water is written partially as Bobby's journal, and one of the successes of the series is that his voice continues to sound authentic. His narration is casual, sarcastic, unpolished to the point of choppiness and most often concerned with his own physical state. As long as you don't mind sophomoric humor, Bobby's observations can sometimes be quite funny, as when he writes, "Boon (a klee) bent over and puked. It wasn't a kittycat hairball gaak, either. He totally ralphed." However, it would be hard to describe what Bobby is really like as a person; neither he nor his friends ever come across as much more than the stereotypes they're based on. And as for Saint Dane -- would it be asking too much to have, for once, a fantasy villain who wasn't Evil Incarnate?

The priority of action over everything else in Black Water inevitably shortchanges both plot and character depth. It's true the action sequences that make up most of the book are page-turners, but they end up feeling oddly insubstantial. However fun they are to read, they can't quite disguise the fact that relatively little actually happens in the greater scheme of things, even across five books. I should know: I skipped from the first book to the fifth without any trouble.

Think of Black Water as an improved, book version of a video game. It touches lightly on moral and philosophic issues, especially when exploring relations between the klees and the gars, and MacHale's world of Eelong has plenty of color, detail and -- well, smell. Black Water is an entertaining, quick-paced read that will appeal to its target audience, but it lacks anything that would attract a more diverse readership.

by Jennifer Mo
2 December 2006

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