The Rogue Knight, Middle Grade Fantasy by Brandon Mull
Series: Five Kingdoms #2
My rating: ⭐⭐
I hate that I read this after sharing with a friend how much we both loved the Fablehaven series. The Rogue Knight was such a chore to get through that I started to hate reading anything and couldn’t even take refuge in a better book. It feels uncomfortable to dislike so passionately something as popular as Mull’s books. I know many people who love all of his work indiscriminately and I thought I was in that camp too. But it’s impossible to ignore the entitled perspective just to try to enjoy a book that is a tedious retread of the first book–which was itself dangerously close to outright boring.
After noticing a few problematic elements in the first book, I was apprehensive starting this one. They got much, much worse. Credit where it’s due, it looks like Mull did his best to mitigate and not be sizeist. The depiction of a dwarf knight still felt sizeist to me. And the sexism is twice as bad as in the first book. It is sinister and pervasive. Cole encounters two kids he knew in Mesa, a girl named Jill and his friend Dalton. They are in the same job in different parts of the kingdom. Cole finds them individually at different times and in different places. In both cases, he offers to rescue them. It feels like a comparison is very deliberately drawn between them to imply the conclusion that Jill, a girl, is too afraid to fight for her freedom and instead accepts literal slavery, while Dalton, a boy, exhibits the courage necessary to escape his situation easily and with no visible qualms. This is not unlike when a girl was the one to rat out Cole and get him captured in this first book. It hurts to see casual, thoughtless sexism from the person who gave us Kendra in Fablehaven.
Just as casually, we get a case of a pointlessly antagonistic female character pitted against another female character, in Skye’s mother. Despite the fact that Elloweer is a created world that doesn’t share the real world’s history, she is a sneering, judgmental mother who has money and social position reminiscent of English aristocracy.
“She inherited most of her fortune,” Skye said. “Father worked with a local bank. He passed away more than ten years ago. My great-grandfather was a well-regarded alderman. He accomplished a lot of good for Merriston and for Elloweer. Mother keeps a busy calendar, but doesn’t really do much. She knows everyone, though.”
(emphasis mine) I could break down all of the ways this one paragraph demonises her and shits on women, but I’m just too tired and sad.
Women and girls are largely absent otherwise. Positively portrayed female characters are rare on the ground and tend to be kidnapped or killed. Mira lacks agency and personality when this really ought to be her story. I don’t know why Cole is even there, let alone the hero. He does a better job of not completely forgetting about his enslaved friends this time, but the bar for that was pretty low. Even Jace makes more sense as the main character. Cole is just there to force a fish out of water story that doesn’t work. He doesn’t miss his home or family–he doesn’t even seem to have feelings. He only exists so that people can explain things to him all the time. He gets special powers and everything revolves around him, but it feels nonsensical.
Maybe Mull didn’t know how to present a magical world without having a stock audience proxy who isn’t from the world. He certainly seems to have had trouble crafting the magical world in this book. At a certain point near the end, the illusory magic of Elloweer seems to mimic the matter creation/manipulation of Sambria, when it’s expressly meant to be different.
This series just isn’t as good as Fablehaven. The books are overwritten, the style is clunky and overly dependent on telling, and the characters are boring. There could have been a sense of wonder or noble heroic impulse, but most of that is killed by the unnecessary enslaved friends subplot and the depressingly dull main character. My saddest realisation reading this was that Mull isn’t actually a skilled writer. He has fun ideas and in Fablehaven he proved to be a good storyteller. But in this series, he seems to have focused on just the fun ideas. The best parts of the book are set pieces divorced from character and plot. I don’t even know if he had fun writing this, as the climax of the second book is basically the same as the climax of the second book.
I have the rest of the books and I hate to leave a series unfinished. But I’m just going to shelve it for now.