Review of the Day: Maximillian Fly by Angie Sage
- Maximillian Fly
- By Angie Sage
- Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
- ISBN: 978-0-06-257116-8
- Ages 10 and up
- On shelves June 11th
If you are going to make up a world, be it good or be it bad, I sincerely hope you commit to the bit. Think things through. Work out the details. Plan out the plumbing (so to speak). A poorly realized fictional world can either be painful or a bore (or painfully boring, I suppose). Most are middling. They’ll sport perfectly serviceable locations but not the kinds of places that inextricably suck you in. Now consider the case of Angie Sage. The book Maximillian Fly isn’t her first time at the rodeo, not by a long shot. Librarians like myself probably associate her primarily with the Septimus Heap series or, to a lesser extent, Araminta Spookie. I really haven’t read either of those, so the allure of this book was probably very much a case of (A) knowing the author was a proven writer and (B) there was a gigantic cockroach man standing on the cover, clearly constructed by the artist Red Nose Studio. That cover was basically tailor made for people like me. And the book, spoiler alert, is remarkable, often because the world building is sublime. Would you want to live in the city of Hope? No. But it breathes off the page. It smells. It pulsates. In Maximillian Fly Sage has built a remarkable story that will land hard with the right kind of audience. The kid that wants desperately to be challenged, is willing to walk with heroes through dark and terrible dangers, but who needs that happy ending to round it all out when all is said and done. This is for them.
“I am Fly. Maximillian Fly. I am a good creature. I am not bad, as some will tell you.” Considering that Maximillian is a human/cockroach hybrid of sorts, this is not particularly surprising news. What is surprising is that in spite of the harsh life he’s endured, on the day that he spots two children attempting to escape their captors, he decides to help them out. That action, however, has massive consequences. Kaitlin Drew and her little brother Jonno have a stolen piece of technology hidden on them. As a result, dark forces are conspiring to get the children and what they carry. What they don’t know is that Maximillian and the kids are now inextricably linked together, and untangling their relationship and the truth of where they live will prove to be the adventure of a lifetime.
One of the most engaging aspects of the book is visible from the very first page. Child and adult readers are fairly used to intrusive narrators by now. If the Lemony Snicket books didn’t introduce you to the concept then the Kate DiCamillo books did. Maximillian addresses the reader on the very first page and it all seems perfectly normal. Or rather, it would if Maximillian weren’t continually mentioning the fact that there even is a silent observer. He seems aware of his audience and, more interestingly, moved to impress it. Even that didn’t strike me as too different, until we get to the moment when his friend Parminter reveals that she too is aware of the reader’s presence, and is uncertain how to deal with that information. It was about that time that I realized that what we had here was something rather remarkable. This isn’t a book with an intrusive narrator at all. No, sir, this is the far rarer intrusive READER! I have never seen the like. Honestly, classes that teach how to write novels for children should pair this book with M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin’s The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. Put them together and you’d have an Intrusive Reader on the one hand and an Unreliable Visual Narrator on the other. Brilliant!
You cannot plunge readers into a world of human/cockroach hybrids without engaging writing. Do it poorly and your central conceit will fail you before you’ve even begun. But Sage writes with a surety that you can’t help but admire. Right from the start, she heads off at the pass a problem I have with a lot of books that sport multiple narrators. Each chapter heading contains a little symbol or two or three, indicating which characters will be speaking during that chapter. I love this. Not once did I ever question who was speaking and when. Then there are Sage’s descriptions. The sense of place is writ deep in the bones of the book. Just listen to this passage:
“I look up at the tall buildings that rear up on either side of us, their red and yellow bricks blackened by smoke from illegal coal fires, their windows thick with grime because who wants to waste precious water cleaning windows.”
Gal can write. Even the relationships between the characters, their motivations, their arguments, all of that feels so authentic and true. In one instance the villain is facing off against someone she used to know well and, for just a moment, a spark between the two of them that hints at what their relationship may have been like long ago. Sure the villain is pretty unsalvageable, but that spark at least hints at her having been a complicated person once. Finally, it may be the writing that initially sucks you in but it’s the aforementioned world building that will keep you from ever letting go. Consider how well Sage sets up Hope’s twisted society. For example, she’ll pepper the chapters with little subtle mentions of how this world is striated. Like, if a family takes on a “Roach” name (Roaches are only allowed certain approved names) then no one in the family can be employed in schools, hospitals, cafes or restaurants. These mentions are dropped in passing, but their contribution to the whole is huge.
Only two little plot points have become the flies in my ointment (forgive me). They aren’t huge inconveniences, but nagging little dangling threads. The first concerns Kaitlin Drew herself. In a key moment, Kaitlin in the process of actually fooling the SilverSeed baddies. She has a chance to run for freedom. Then, at the last moment, she walks right back in to her doom. This change of heart isn’t adequately explained. According to the book, Kaitlin was acting like a true believer so well that she actually fooled herself along with everyone else. I don’t buy that for a red-hot minute (not after considering who she had to sacrifice in the process). But it’s not a deal breaker. Also not a deal breaker, but rather annoying, are the night roaches. Set up as baddies from the get go, I expected to see a lot more of them in the book. Yet oddly, Sage chooses to only have one sequence where one of our heroes is hunted by a roach. As a result, I expected an even greater night roach sequence near the end. Instead, Sage pretty much forgets about them, choosing to move her climax in a different direction. The night roaches are convenient methods of moving the plot along but they’re just that. Faceless boogeymen that don’t get their moment in the sun. One wonders if there was a sequence involving them that was edited out at some point.
It’s always so hard to categorize books like Maximillian. I won’t lie, there are dark dealings here. You’re better off handing this to a reader that likes those dark elements. This book is many things but bedtime storytime reading it is not. Older child readers, middle schoolers really, are probably the ideal audience. After all, this is a book with lines like “Mama taught me all about deferred gratification.” Reading it as an adult I found myself growing far too emotionally anxious at times to go on. I often would skip ahead to determine who lived and who died. This is actually rather difficult to ascertain, since the book kills off far less people than seem to walk off to their own certain demise. The body count is there, but it’s mostly made up of baddies. My conclusion then is that this is a book for the smart kids with a goth streak. The ones that require pulse pounding action from the first page, but don’t mind swaths of exposition from time to time. Most of all, this is a book for kids that might find a post-apocalyptic dystopian wasteland an appealing place to spend their time. Particularly when you are in the company of someone as sweet and charming as Maximilian. It’s not for everyone. It was never meant to be. But it is good and strong and fun and desperately exciting. You have been warned.
On shelves June 11th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2019, Reviews, Reviews 2019
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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