Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pyramid scheme

I began my school visits last week, after a three-month hiatus (not able to drive with broken ankle). It's clear I lost my immunity in those three months, because it didn't take me three days to catch a cold from one of those little rascals. So, I'm cranky.

I'm also not one of Rick Riordan's most ardent fans on my good days. The Red Pyramid has promise as an audiobook: We are told at the beginning that the brother and sister, Carter and Sadie Kane, are telling their story via a tape recording. In this first installment of The Kane Chronicles, Carter and Sadie -- who have been raised apart since the death of their mother -- are reunited by their Egyptologist father. He takes them to the British Museum after hours and performs some mumbo-jumbo at the Rosetta Stone. The Stone explodes, imprisoned gods are freed, Dr. Kane is entombed in a coffin and disappears. Carter and Sadie are swept up by their uncle to safety.

Except, of course, they really aren't safe. They soon discover that they are the most powerful magicians in the House of Life (these are the humans who facilitated communication between the Egyptians and their gods, I think) and only they can defeat the evil god Set (what an old-fashioned framed site that is [even though I like it] ... you have to find "Seth" in the list of articles in the left frame) who is bent on ... wait for it, yes! world domination. Thus begins a wild ride of Egyptian mythology, weird creatures, sibling banter and battles to the death. For 14-1/2 hours.

I recognize Rick Riordan's appeal to young readers, but this felt very bloated and formulaic to me. The scenes of escape and battle were interspersed with those explaining what mythology and/or god we needed to know about in order to understand what happened next. All too soon, I didn't care very much about any of it, and it just became an endurance test to the finish. (Alas, I can't even remember if Carter and Sadie rescue their father, or if he remains entombed.)

In a 21st century touch, Carter and Sadie are mixed-race; Carter closely resembles his African American father, while Sadie favors her white English mother. Carter is reserved and lacks confidence in himself, while Sadie is bossy and barrels into situations without thinking. They bicker a lot. The book's audio conceit is that they are constantly arguing about who has control of the recording, but this is not evident as each takes his or her turn; we are just told they are arguing. The siblings alternate chapters, but more often they are simply offering their version of events, not debating who is telling it correctly. Eventually, they separate and the individual narratives bring us up to date on the novel's events.

Two narrators tell the story: Kevin R. Free is Carter and Katherine Kellgren is Sadie. Kellgren frequently shows up here, but this is the first time I've heard Free. He does a fine job with Carter's voice -- a little naive and insecure, then enthusiastic and even aggressive once Carter hits his stride. He's less successful with other characters -- most notably with Sadie (because she's constantly present in the narrative). He just sounds so uncomfortable speaking with her English accent. There are other characters with accents that he's also inconsistent with (and I can't remember any of them). While listening, I got the feeling that Katherine Kellgren just kept voicing characters with accents left and right, and poor Kevin just couldn't keep up. It's not that he's not as talented as she is, it's more that his talents don't lie in reading books with multiple characters.

Kellgren's performance is up to her usual standard, but ultimately Sadie began to weary me. I'm not sure that this is the character or the performance, but the shouting, smugness and her general superiority was not pleasing to listen to. In the end, I felt less invested in her character than in Carter's.

I'm sure they were doing a straight reading of the novel -- in other words, when Sadie says "No, it's my turn to tell" [paraphrasing], there isn't an interruption from Carter along the lines of "you're telling it wrong" that isn't included in the audiobook. I think that's the feeling that the book is trying to convey, but this doesn't come across in the audiobook. Their conflict feels pretty fake in truth. It seems like a good idea, but the execution failed.

The Red Pyramid (Book 1 of The Kane Chronicles) by Rick Riordan
Narrated by Kevin R. Free and Katherine Kellgren
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 14:32

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