When I was in third grade, I discovered Walter R. Brooks’s Freddy the Pig series—26 (!) volumes recounting the adventures of a sophisticated and resourceful talking pig and his barnyard friends. That I was still reading such fare two years later, in fifth grade, troubled my mother, who had higher academic hopes for her son.
She needn’t have worried (on that account, at least). Research now suggests that the more a child reads, regardless of the content of the reading material, the better a student the child is likely to be. Wise parents balance this perspective with the knowledge that some books have inappropriate content, and should not be foisted on unsuspecting readers, especially young ones. The Hippocratic Oath’s “First, do no harm” principle applies to literature as well as to medicine.
On these grounds, parents can set aside concerns about their children reading John W. Otte’s debut fantasy novel, “Failstate.” Though the book clearly falls into the casual reading category, perhaps even the frivolous class, it is a fun read, and it has a sincere, if underdeveloped, Christian worldview.
“Failstate”—a finalist for the Christy Award—is a breezy, quasi-science fiction fantasy aimed at young teens. The writing is brisk, the chapters are short, and the clever, intricate plot (Publisher’s Weekly aptly calls the book a page-turner) is delivered with a touch of humor by the sympathetic protagonist/narrator. The book’s drawbacks include serious logical and editorial inconsistencies, lack of psychological realism, and a shallow though sincere spirituality.
The tale’s narrator is Rob Laughlin, alias superhero Failstate. Rob is a short, klutzy, hormonal, and insecure 16 year old, competing with several peers on “America’s Next Superhero”, a reality TV show that’s a cross between “Survivor” and “American Idol.” The prize? A coveted, official government superhero license.
The competition comes to a grinding halt when Lux, the pretty fellow contestant on whom Rob is developing a crush, is brutally murdered between shows. Compelled to search for the culprits and bring them to justice, Rob gradually uncovers a deadly conspiracy with a global scope. His pursuit of the villains is dogged by the realities of adolescent life—boy-likes-girl brain fog, peer and sibling rivalries, tentative friendships, and occasional doses of just plain poor judgment. Ironically, these struggles give the story and its protagonist their endearing qualities.
In a refreshing twist for the genre, superhero Rob is a Christian. He attends church, invites friends to youth group, and prays occasionally, mostly on the rare occasions that his superpower—the ability to focus destructive energy on non-organic targets—fails.
All fantasy requires suspension of disbelief, but “Failstate” requires more than most. Logical flaws crop up with distracting frequency. Here is but a small sampling: After Lux’s murder, civil authorities ban the reality TV show out of concern for the contestants’ safety, but they inexplicably wait until another episode has been filmed before enforcing the ban. Security at a prison housing captured supervillains is so lax that Rob is waved through after merely identifying himself as the friend of a regular visitor. Rob’s powers do not affect organic material, but late in the book, he is suddenly able to inflict pain on his opponents. At a key juncture, Rob’s friend Haruki is suspended precariously in an anti-gravity field. Rescuing Haruki is vital to the plot, but we suddenly find him on the ground, free and safe, without explanation.
The book is also blemished by a variety of editorial mishaps, ranging from minor typos and missing words to occasional mistaken sequencing of narrative. A good proofreader would have caught the former; a strong editor would have corrected the latter.
From a spiritual perspective, the book’s weakest link is its one-dimensional Christianity. Though Rob’s faith appears sincere, it is immature, doing little to shape his thinking or behavior, and with few indications of growth over the course of the story. The strongest passage regarding spiritual matters occurs near the book’s end when his youth pastor’s mini-sermon on the Epistle of James sparks a realization in the young superhero. Rob suddenly grasps that he needs to work in unity, not in competition, with his brother, other superheroes, and even his mother. But even here, the change plays out too quickly and easily for believability.
In addition, no framework is provided for understanding the existence of the superheroes’ various powers. What is their source? Are they miraculous? How does Rob’s necklace keep his power in check and disguise his disfigured face? In an odd scene, Delphi, a key character with no apparent Christian faith, delivers a disjointed prophecy identifying Rob as the only one who can save the world, but the implicit messianic role has no sacrificial component. (Perhaps this is asking too much of a lighthearted fantasy, but then, why insert such a weighty and unnecessary prophetic element into the story?)
Stated baldly, “Failstate” presents a shallow view of God, of what a relationship with Him entails, and of how that relationship can form our understanding of life and shape our actions. But these are heavy critiques of a lightweight tale in which faith plays a part, but is not the focus. While the author may have missed an opportunity to challenge his readers, that is clearly not the book’s purpose.
“Failstate” is a romp—an entertaining read with a more than passing nod to faith. If your children discover the book and it captures their imagination, let them read! Freddy the pig did me no harm, and he didn’t even pray.
Image copyright Marcher Lord Press. Review copy supplied by the publisher.
Jay Sappington is a musician, bioethicist, educator, and former missionary to Africa who is passionate about encouraging young people to explore the arts. He lives with his wife in Michigan, where he is co-authoring a fantasy novel for young readers and a Christmas musical for the whole family.