*WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Francoise Sagan was seventeen when she wrote Bonjour Tristesse. SE Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was sixteen. At fourteen, Anne Frank’s writing demonstrated an emotional sensitivity and clarity that most adult authors struggle to achieve. So, to dismiss a book simply because it was written by a teenager is unfair – it’s been proven over and over that teenagers are capable of great writing.
On the other hand…Christopher Paolini wrote a poorly-conceived Star Wars ripoff that succeed mainly due to his parents’ connections in the publishing world and the (admittedly strong) blockbuster marketabiltity of his series. We can’t all be Francoise Sagan, and unfortunately, Schuyler J. Ebersol belongs in the Paolini camp.
I don’t know, guys – maybe we should stop letting teenage white boys publish novels. It hasn’t worked out too well so far.
I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I probably should have known what I was getting myself into right off the bat, because the book was pitched as a novel “for the Harry Potter generation” (which seems a bit premature, really, considering that the Harry Potter books ended like five years ago, so it’s not like we’re getting all nostalgic for it) and Ebersol explained his reasons for wanting to write The Hidden World thusly: “As a young adult male I wrote what I wanted to read.” (Mr. Ebersol, please explain to me in 500 words or less how you, as a young white male, are underrepresented in literature while I sit in the corner and serenade you with my tiny violin)
Anyway, our Not-Harry-Potter hero is Nate Williams. When he was six years old, he was found wandering the woods after his family was mysteriously murdered, and he was adopted by a family that apparently owns half of the United States. So right off the bat, we’re veering far away from the source material: where Harry spent his childhood being bullied by his classmates and treated like dirt by his adopted family, Nate Williams grows up with a billionaire father, a movie star mother, and generally the most perfect life you could possibly imagine. It’s sort of like Ebersol read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and thought, “This is cool and everything, but what if Dudley Dursley got the Hogwarts letter instead?”
When Nate is seventeen, he has a massive heart attack and is in a coma for a week. When he comes out of the coma (with no apparent brain damage, yay!) he finds that he can transform into a wolf when he sees moonlight. As one does. In a scene ripped directly from the X-Men movies, Not-Dumbledore shows up at the Williams’ house and tells Nate that he is, in fact, even MORE special than previously assumed and gets to go to Not-Hogwarts with all the other shifter kids and learn magic and generally be awesome, and I cannot even begin to explain how much this disappointed me, because by this point in the book I hated Nate Williams. He was a privileged little shit who was perfect at everything he did, worshipped by everyone he knew, given everything he wanted – and then someone shows up and grants him even more privilege. Think I’m exaggerating how much of a Gary Sue Nate is? Here, let Ebersol introduce his protagonist who, I will remind you, we are supposed to like:
“Nate Williams was shockingly extraordinary, in addition to having a financially privileged life and striking looks. He struggled with the problems and reveled in the joys that one would expect of someone his age. He had his faults, like anyone else, though it was difficult to see them under the mask of his popularity and confidence.”
It was at this point that I started to wonder if Ebersol was trolling me, because no one in their right mind could think that an introduction like that would make readers sympathize with the protagonist. It’s not possible, right guys? Right?
OH! And when Nate gets the invitation to go to Not-Hogwarts (it’s called Noble College but that’s a dumb name so I’m going to keep calling it Not-Hogwarts) Nate is initially hesitant, saying he doesn’t want to leave his school and his friends. I was excited, because maybe Nate would finally have to experience some hardship by being thrown into an unfamiliar environment by himself. But nope! Turns out that Not-Hogwarts has this great rule where every student who gets accepted to this secret, ultra-exclusive magic school is allowed to bring two friends along, who will also be enrolled in the school and taught how to transform into animals!
What. The actual. Fuck. In what world does that make any sense? First – no, that is not how colleges work. You don’t get to bring a buddy along to ease the transition. This is not summer camp. Second – hang on, so normals can be taught how to be shifters too? Then why are there so few shifters? There’s some minor ass-covering later, when Not-Dumbledore explains that Nate’s two friends (who, by the way, completely discard their future plans and their families in order to follow their once and future king Nate to Not-Hogwarts, because God forbid something not work out perfectly for Nate fucking Williams) always had the potential to be shifters, which is why they were allowed to come. But that’s pretty fucking convenient that Nate is buddies with the two dudes who are also secretly future shifters. And what about everyone else who brings two friends along? And third, with each student bringing two friends along to Not-Hogwarts, wouldn’t the Artificials outnumber the Naturals? What would that mean for the student body of Not-Hogwarts? But I’m not supposed to be thinking about that, because Ebersol certainly didn’t.
So Nate and his loyal sidekicks skip off to Not-Hogwarts, which was apparently designed by Willy Wonka after an acid trip – the walls and floors of the dorms are made out of a different material every day, and the hallway to the Astronomy classroom is a mini solar system that the students have to walk through every day. They start learning magic, and by magic, I mean they start learning how to do literally everything. In Ebersol’s world, these people (who I had foolishly assumed could only transform into animals) can control the weather, communicate with animals, cure any illness, transform materials, and control other people’s minds (the horrifying consequences of giving teenagers the ability to control others’ actions and thoughts is never addressed by Ebersol, and it’s treated as a cute joke that students can take over other students’ minds and make them fall down). There’s never a really concrete explanation of how they’re able to do these things, and I don’t mean how they can do magic in the first place – I mean the actual mechanics of how the students do all of this awesome stuff is never explained or shown. They don’t use wands, they don’t learn any incantations, there doesn’t seem to be any special hand gestures involved – stuff just happens.
The plot resembles Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, because of course the guy who killed Nate’s parents escapes from prison and starts murdering people, but he’s never much of a threat, because none of his murder victims are established characters, and also the guy (Gray) is forgotten for the majority of the book so we can watch Nate being perfect some more. Gray, unfortunately, is one of those villains who is only villainous because the characters keep assuring us he’s super evil, so we never actually have to see him doing evil stuff. Nate’s final confrontation with the villain, where we finally learn the Deep Dark Secrets of Nate’s past (which are neither deep nor dark, nor very secret because they can be easily guessed by anyone who’s read a book before) carries so little weight that it’s not even worth discussing. There were so many missed opportunities, though. Ebersol establishes early on that Gray has lots of people working for him, who help him carry out murders across the country. Following the laws of novel writing, this means that one or more of the characters will be revealed as Gray’s associates. Or not. I was really hoping we would find out that Nate’s foster father was one of Gray’s followers and had only adopted Nate in order to keep an eye on him for Gray, because it would mean that the silver spoon shoved up Nate’s ass was just a little bit tarnished. But no. The foster father was entirely on the level, and Nate’s perfect life was really as perfect as we’d been led to believe (like his Christmas gift – a choice of a new Audi, Aston Martin, Maserati, or Porsche. This was the point where I said out loud to the pages, “Fuck this kid“).
The pacing is terrible – there are numerous pointless diversions, including several trips to Not-Hogsmeade and a lot of Not-Quidditch games (it’s called Jeka, is a combination of soccer, football, and rugby, and weirdly involves no magic whatsoever) that take up entire chapters and can be skipped entirely, because nothing important ever happens in them. The characters are one-dimensional at best, and there are too many useless subplots that go nowhere. There’s an extended subplot involving Nate and his friends’ romantic lives, and it mostly serves to prove that Schuyler Ebersol believes that female characters should exist only in relation to the male characters – every single girl in this book functions only as the mother, sister, or girlfriend of a male character, and it’s fucking irritating. The girlfriends are particularly frustrating, because they are virtually interchangeable (seriously – Nate and his friends acquire and swap girlfriends with the ease and emotional detachment of someone picking out a pair of shoes). Also all the female characters are treated with a sort of good-natured condescension and “Women be shopping!”-style humor, as in this sentence: “Emma and Sophia left to dress, taking their time as all girls do.” and this one: “He listened to Baako and John arguing about the last hand and to the three girls talking about which actor was the hottest.” It’s Misogyny Lite, and it’s infuriating.
The writing is bad. It’s not average. It’s bad. The dialogue reads like lines from a bad video game (“Everyone here knows of the Williams, and I have been to other parts of the world where your name is known as well.”) and the descriptions are weirdly formal and blowhard-y, like they should be spoken by the narrator of an overly-serious documentary (“The landscape had been shaped by time: the greatest sculptor of all.”) With time and practice, Ebersol will get better at writing, and eventually be average. But Jesus, this shit is painful.
But what disappoints me most is the missed opportunity this book presents. Simply put, Nate is the villain of the story, and Ebersol is too enamored of his protagonist to see it. Nate, it is established throughout the story, is an arrogant, spoiled little shit. A character even calls him out on his arrogance, but instead of using this as an opportunity for reflection, Ebersol just has another character reassure his protagonist in this cringe-inducing exchange:
“‘You don’t think I’m arrogant and self-centered, do you?’
‘No, of course not. Jasmine didn’t mean it.’
‘But I kind of think I am.’
‘Well, then that’s who you are, and no one would like you any different than who you are.'”
It’s all like that. Characters are just lining up to suck Nate’s dick. Here’s another conversation, this time between Nate and Not-Dumbledore:
“‘Don’t let things that have already happened bother you, because there’s nothing you can do about them.’
‘Damn good reasoning. We don’t have teachers as smart as you.’
*bangs head on desk repeatedly, laughter turns to tears*
I’m now going to discuss the ending, and its wasted potential, so stop reading if you are planning to read this and want everything to be a surprise for some reason. So at the end, Gray reveals that the reason he tried to kill Nate when he was little was because Nate is “The Natural” – the most special of all the special snowflakes. Basically Nate, this spoiled seventeen-year-old who has grown up surrounded by far too much positive reinforcement, has just been informed that he is the most powerful person on earth. What happens when you take a teenage boy who has grown up being treated like God and tell him that he IS God? He’s going to destroy the fucking planet, that’s what. Nate Williams isn’t Harry Potter – Harry went through hardship, and learned to be humble, and resisted every attempt to be turned into a hero. Nate Willaims is Lex Luthor, and the only reason I would read the second book in this series is if it started with Nate going on a killing spree, and his former friends banding together to put a stop to his madness.
This is not a book for the Harry Potter generation. This is a fairy tale for the 1%, a story of a dude born into unimaginable privilege who then acquires even more privilege by virtue of his genetics, where the supporting characters constantly validate the protagonist’s belief that he is the greatest person to ever walk the earth. Fuck this book, and fuck every entitled rich white boy who got the world handed to him on a silver platter and then demanded more. I’m going to go re-read Bonjour Tristesse and pretend the world isn’t horrible now, but I’ll give the last word of this review to a friend of mine, who summed up my feelings on The Hidden World quite succinctly: “No more books by spoiled rich white boys, at least until they get some fucking life experience.”
Verdict: one out of five stars