Book Review: The Merchant of Death (Pendragon Book One) by D.J. MacHale

November 20, 2004

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Folks, I am without a doubt the doofus of the decade; for I bought only the first book of this series, to try it out and see if I would like it…and by the time I got around to reading it, I had so many other books (and so few dollars) lined up that buying the rest of the series was out of the question…and I can hardly wait to read them! In fact, I had a hard time concentrating at work today because I was so looking forward to finishing this book.

As young readers’ fantasy stories go, it isn’t built on what you could really call an original premise. If you’ve read a tithe of the books reviewed on the Book Trolley, or even if you’ve only read the Harry Potter books, by now you’ll be very matey with the idea: More or less normal kid finds out that his destiny is to wield weird powers, battle great evils, and save the world whether he is ready or not. Sound familiar?

But the twist in this story is the voice of Bobby Pendragon, a 14-year-old basketball star from the New York suburb of Stony Brook, Connecticut. Most of the story is narrated by Bobby in the form of journals scribbled on rolls of parchment, which are then sent through an interdimensional gateway to his dweeby best friend, Mark. And while Mark and a girl jock named Courtney Chetwynde try to figure out what has happened to Bobby, young Pendragon finds himself in a “territory” called Denduron, on the far end of space and time, accompanied by his mysterious Uncle Press, shoved bewildered and unprepared into a battle for the peace and stability of a whole world–and countless other worlds into the bargain.

Denduron is inhabited by various tribes of humans. One of those tribes, the Milago, live in hunger, fear, and pain, viciously enslaved by the hoity-toity Bedoowan. The Bedoowan tyrant is a disgusting creature named Kagan, but the power behind the throne is a Traveler like Press and Bobby–or rather, quite unlike them. Saint Dane, as he is known throughout his many incarnations, is a terrible being who wants to unbalance the whole Halla–what Diana Wynne Jones would call “multiverse” and what Douglas Adams would call the “Whole Sort of General Mish-Mash,” but which really means everything and everyone that exists, in all worlds, at all times. The mission of Press, Bobby, and the other Travelers who join them is to stop Saint Dane and bring peace to Denduron.

But it won’t be easy. It isn’t that Saint Dane does anything directly, but he influences people to do things–and Bobby himself makes mistakes–that bring everything closer and closer to disaster. An attempt to free the peaceful Milago from the brutal Bedoowan turns first into a test of Bobby’s bravery and cleverness, then into a terrible arms race supplied by an oily little peddler who has discovered a substance called tak that makes heap big boom-boom. And while Uncle Press desperately tries to save the people of Denduron from annihilating each other, Bobby faces Saint Dane himself.

This is a fascinating story, alternating between Bobby’s hip, youthful, first-person voice and the third-person narrative on his friend Mark’s end of things. It features a villain who will obviously come back in future books (I think there are 5 at this writing) and who may remind some of the “Lone Power” from Diane Duane’s Young Wizards Series. There is sorrow, humor, romance, horror, suspense, gripping action, and an explosive climax–plus a line that will stick in your head: “This is the way it was meant to be.” I look forward to getting more books in this series for Christmas. (Strong hint to any friends & family who may be reading this.)