Review: Daniel X: Watch the Skies

When I found out that copies of James Patterson's new young adult book Daniel X: Watch the Skies were available for review, I immediately asked my eldest child and Patterson fan, Iz, if she wanted me to snare her a copy. She said "yes, please," so I turned around to my computer and wrote "yes, please," too.

The book arrived. Iz gobbled it down. She liked it, she said, because it was never boring, it was funny, it was fast, and it had what she considered to be an interesting twist at the end. She also liked the back-end placement of teaser chapters from other, forthcoming Patterson books, and wanted to know when she'd be getting her complimentary copies of those? I told her I couldn't guarantee anything but we never know.

Then I sat down with the book to see if I liked it as much as Iz did, and initially the answer was "no." The story was creative and exciting enough, about an orphan teen alien hunter and his friends, both imaginary and real, battling a giant malevolent extraterrestrial catfish-like media producer who makes marionettes out of humans before exterminating them, all in the name of "endertainment" and TV ratings; the book features explosions, fast cars, motorcycles, spying, narrow escapes, and chases galore, plus lots of nose-thumbing at school administrators. But it reads like Michael Crichton for kids: an innovative but minimally padded story outline, and it's peppered with too much of what seems like movie, songs, restaurant, and brands product placement. And the chapters were jarringly short -- many were only two pages. Daniel X: Watch the Skies was all bam-bam-bam action, with no time to take a breath or let characters develop. I found it disorienting yet skimpy, and was surprised Iz enjoyed it.

Then I put the book aside and thought about its appeal, and the authors' (it is co-written with Ned Rust) motivations some more. James Patterson is also the founder of ReadKiddoRead, a site devoted to getting kids to love books like the author does. And I get the sense that Daniel X, like the Maximum Ride series Iz also enjoys, is about getting kids to do that reading using any hooks necessary. From this perspective, Daniel X is a rich read -- it's full of such hooks.

Many older kids and teens, and indeed adult sci fi/fantasy fans don't want character development. They want action. This book will give them that, in an extremely violent but still relatively sanitary fashion -- people are melted into goo, but there is almost no blood or gore. And the book is so fast-paced and there are so many action scenes that readers don't really have time to analyze what kind of violence & action they're reading about.

The constant citing of contemporary brands might be more grounding and comforting for some readers than a book skirting the retail and cultural footholds of our era in a bid to remain classic. Daniel X: Watch the Skies might not age well, but then again it might remain very much a symbol of that which was 2009. We'll see.

Daniel X has much for a parent to approve of in that it celebrates love and responsibility towards family, friends, the environment, and even animals. It's also quite tame when it comes to teen relations. There are funny feelings in tummies, there are kisses and swooning -- but naught else. Parents or guardians concerned about all that sexy sex pervading teen literature should be pleased.

That tameness makes it rather strange, though, that the authors keep mentioning Stranger in a Strange Land as a pillar of literature, one of the Best Books Ever. I have already been teaching my kids about Stranger in a Strange Land concepts like the Fair Witness and grokking -- but consider the book itself inappropriate for my ten-year-old Iz, who's on the younger end of the Daniel X readership. What are kids to think about Daniel X when they discover the book he adores says it's usually a girl's own fault when she gets raped? That it depicts sixties-style free love? This is a bit of a misstep, in my opinion.

I could also do without the unsubtle preaching about the evils of technology and media and how they turn people into mindless consumer bobbleheads, but I suspect readers who enjoy Patterson's books are willing to put up with that quirk in return for a rip-roaring bit of chaste ultraviolence with the likeable, resourceful, cheerful teen alien hunter Daniel X. They might smirk a bit, though, if they're reading his story on a Kindle.


MotherTalk sponsored the Daniel X Book Tour. In addition to putting yet another volume on Iz's groaning bookshelf, they provided reviewers with modest Amazon gift certificates. I look forward to using our certificate to replace my son Leo's loved-to-shreds copies of My World, Hop on Pop, and Everyone Poops.

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