The five-book young-adult fantasy Dragonwatch series by Brandon Mull was finished and released as a box set in November 2021. It’s a continuation of the five-book Fablehaven series.
I read Brandon Mull’s Five Kingdoms series in 2018 after the books were all published and the box set was released. I read The Candy Shop War and its sequel in April 2015. I read the three-book Beyonders series in a more spread out kind of way (May 2011, October 2012, Jan 2014). Same with the Fablehaven series: I started reading the it in July 2008 and finished the fifth book in August 2010.
Why have I been looking forward to reading these? Why is it that I’ve read so many of Brandon Mull’s books? What’s so great about them, anyway? Well, I’ll tell you.
“Wait, you read YA fantasy books?”
Well yeah. I read lots of kinds of books.
Some people think all fantasy books (especially those for children and teens) are utterly predictable paint-by-number stories. They’ve got a ridiculously young hero, a quest for a magic object, a couple of mentors and allies, lots of magical creatures, and some sort of adversary who needs to be defeated or the world will be destroyed. Blah blah blah.
It’s true, done badly, fantasy fiction can be boring and meaningless.
But then, so can any kind of fiction.
There are good and bad books in every genre.
What (Fantasy) vs. How (Creativity)
The subject matter is not just fantastical, it’s inventive. Mull’s fantasy creatures are based on existing folklore, but they have attributes and/or personalities that are unique to the worlds he creates. Five Kingdoms, impressively, isn’t one fantasy world, it’s five. Each one has its own rules and requires its own detailed world-building. So much thinking went into those books! What I love most is not the strange details, though.
Decisions, Choices, and Consequences
Mull’s characters face decisions, make choices and face consequences not just at the climax of the story, but on nearly every page. The process is transparent and feels authentic; it doesn’t feel like the characters are puppets of the plot or the author—or worse, the entire genre!
Reading Mull’s stories is a bit like reading a choose-your-own adventure story in that the narration poses questions to make readers think about different possible consequences while the characters themselves do so. The book proceeds with only one decision in every case, but more than one possible way forward is always imagined and considered. Every choice has implications, some of which are known, and some of which, inevitably, are not. In other words, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and the characters explicitly try to take these into consideration.
When I picked up Dragonwatch, it was clear that I was not misremembering this characteristic of Mull’s writing. Even in Chapter 1, this imagining and weighing of possible choices and consequences is already apparent:
The gate to Fablehaven was well back from the main road. A distracter spell helped motorists ignore the nondescript turnoff, and you didn’t have to travel far along the driveway before finding several emphatic signs warning away trespassers.
People did not come to Fablehaven by accident.
And when visitors were expected, it was big news. Grandpa or Grandma Sorenson inevitably brought it up ahead of time. Often the gate was left open for the arrival.
So who was approaching?
Who might come to Fablehaven unannounced?
An old friend? A spy? An enemy?
Or somebody really lost and fairly illiterate.
In case the visitor was an enemy, Kendra hurried off the driveway, withdrawing into the trees and crouching behind some shrubs. Leaving the driveway reduced her protection from magical threats, but trouble seldom happened this close to a protected area. The chance to hide seemed worth the small risk.
Kendra encounters a situation, quickly analyzes it, imagines what might explain it, considers the risks of hiding and not hiding, and makes a decision. Later, because she overhears something not meant for her to hear, she has further decisions to make as a consequence of hiding.
Most authors would just tell us that Kendra heard someone coming and was surprised, then hid to see who it was. I like Mull’s way of storytelling much better. It does a good job of pulling the reader into the story and gives readers valuable practice walking through the steps of making decisions. It’s not just fictional situations that require evaluating what we know and what we think we know; that’s a life skill. This isn’t fantasy, this is critical thinking.
Malvolio, from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, says: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Lasting greatness always involves some degree of achievement, but a lot of fantasy stories feature a hero with a destiny that’s in his blood, that’s tied to who his parents were and to events he had no part in. He typically goes on a quest by choice, but he’s chosen for the quest because of greatness he was born with. An obvious example is Harry Potter, who is told he is a wizard—a famous one.
The kids in the Fablehaven and Dragonwatch series are blood descendants of the human caretakers of hidden magical places, but Mull’s Beyonders series is a departure from the destiny trope in that the hero is nobody in particular: Jason is suddenly transported to another world via a portal that opens in an unexpected location at the zoo where he works. In Five Kingdoms, the hero is one of a random group of children who are kidnapped into another dimension on Halloween.
I think a story featuring everyday heroes can more easily help readers relate to its important themes. Maybe no one will bring us a letter from Hogwarts, but we can still exhibit the same virtues that fantasy characters embody in whatever situations life throws our way.
Brandon Mull’s fantasy plots are about saving the world, retrieving a hidden magical object, escaping, rescuing allies, or imprisoning an enemy. But the decisions, at root, are all about big themes like integrity, loyalty, trust; promises, secrets, lies; planning, collaboration, improvisation; individual strengths, willingness to make mistakes, courage to grow. I don’t know how he manages to fit so much in!
I feel like one way to distinguish between popular fiction and literary fiction is that literary fiction (with some important exceptions) is depressing.
At a writing workshop I attended by a moderately well-known writer of short stories, I was told that every story plot involves loss, that the story is bad for the main character, and that the character would have preferred to avoid the events of the story.
I’m sorry, what?
Why is it not okay to have a story that adds to a character’s life? Some sort of victory or triumph that is earned, some sort of process whereby the character grows or learns without giving up more than they get in return? Sure, victory sometimes comes at a cost, and there’s a place in the world for tragic stories, but not every story should make all the characters worse off in the end. That’s awful. If art is going to imitate life, why should it always imitate only the worst parts? I’ve written about that infuriating approach to fiction before.
Thankfully, there are still people who believe that stories should be fun and inspiring. Brandon Mull is one of them; no one writes such books by accident, or just to pander to the market to earn a living. It’s obvious he put his soul into them.
If you want to do your own soul some good, pick up something by Brandon Mull. You’ll get to read about characters who inhabit interesting fantasy worlds and think through their decisions in full view of the reader, thus achieving meaningful victories.
Check out Brandon Mull’s books on Amazon
- Fablehaven (five book series)
- Dragonwatch (five books, sequel series to Fablehaven)
- Five Kingdoms (five book series)
- Beyonders (three book series)
- The Candy Shop War (has one sequel)
I read and enjoyed books by Terry Goodkind for many of the same reasons I’ve outlined above. If you’re interested in such books but you’d rather read about adults than teens, and you enjoy enormously long doorstoppers, I recommend Goodkind’s 11-book Sword of Truth fantasy series.