On my trip to Minneapolis this week, I read James Patterson's Maximum Ride : The Angel Experiment, a young adult novel newly released in paperback. I saw this book reviewed recently at Scholar's Blog, and was intrigued by the premise. The story is about a "family" of six kids, ranging in age from six to 14, who live on their own. What bonds them together is the fact that they were all genetically engineered in a horrific laboratory called "The School." The kids are 98% human, but also have 2% bird DNA. As a result, they have unusual strength and abilities (including flight). They escaped from The School four years earlier, and lived with their rescuer/mentor for two years, until he disappeared. As the story begins, the kids are attacked by creepy, super-strong predators sent by The School, and one of the kid-bird hybrids (Angel) is kidnapped. The other five embark on a cross-country trip to rescue her, and to find out more about themselves.
The book is filled with danger, battles, evil experiments, betrayal, loyalty, surprises, and a quest to save the world. What keeps it from being a two-dimensional movie of the week is the strong relationship between the six kids, and their own internal vulnerabilities. The character that we get to know best is the Maximum Ride (Max) of the title, who takes her responsibility as the oldest hybrid seriously, and tries to be a mother/leader to the group. Lots of things are left hanging at the end of the book, ready for the sequel (Maximum Ride: School's Out Forever).
I did notice a couple of coincidences in the book that struck me as ridiculous (a pet peeve of mine). Just as the kids need to change their appearance, they come across a salon advertising free makeovers. There's also a scene in which Max stumbles around lost in the woods, finally finds one lit-up house, and it just happens to be the home of someone she's helped earlier in the day. I don't know why these coincidence bother me so much, when I can accept the whole premise of human/bird hybrids without a problem, but there you have it. I think that the use of coincidence as a plot device, especially when you already have license to bend lots of rules because of the book's overall premise, is lazy.
Overall, I did enjoy the book, though I wouldn't call it fine literature. It's fast-paced, with short chapters, and plenty of cliff-hangers. I think that it will be a hit with reluctant readers (especially after the inevitable movie comes out) in the early teen age range. I mean, what kid hasn't dreamed of how cool it would be to be able to fly, and to live without parents or school?
I have to admit for myself that I'm interested to read the sequel. I want to know what happens next to Max and the other kids. And that's saying something, because I have fiercely boycotted Patterson's adult books ever since someone gave me one that featured two serial killer/predators plucking innocent young girls from the Duke University Gardens. I went to school at Duke, and was absolutely horrified at this gratuitous evil in my happy college setting. Yet I was compelled to finish the book, to make sure that things ended up o.k. It still makes me shudder to think of it.
But that said, if you're looking for a good airplane read, or you know a kid who is fascinated by the idea of genetic engineering and mutants with super-powers (a bit like X-Men, come to think of it), Maximum Ride is worth checking out.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.