Disclaimer: I was furnished with an unsolicited advance copy of The Multiverse of Max Tovey by the publisher in exchange for a candid, unpaid appraisal.
Superhero, one of Blake Snyder’s ten narrative models, accounts for so much more than the four-color fantasies of costumed crime-fighters. These stories are, at their most fundamental, about a special someone—“Not quite human nor quite god” (Blake Snyder, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, [Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007], 249)—endowed with extraordinary powers, with which comes the unwanted burden of extraordinary responsibility, who inadvertently provokes jealousy or disdain from us commoners, typically a nemesis that seeks to exploit the superhero’s Achilles heel (and they all have one). These are the tales of Superman and Lex Luthor, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Neo and Agent Smith, Dracula and Van Helsing, Simba and Scar, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. “Real-life Superheroes” the likes of Jackie Robinson in 42 and Alan Turing in The Imitation Game also fit the bill, as do small-screen saviors Jack Bauer (24) and Olivia Pope (Scandal).
At its most emotionally elemental, Snyder sums up the genre as such: “It’s not easy being special” (ibid.).
These stories have particular appeal to children, who long to feel special (on the bus ride home from elementary school every afternoon, I daydreamed of soaring above the city streets like Christopher Reeve), and teenagers, who, on the opposite end of the spectrum, feel as though no one sufficiently relates to them (at sixteen, I read Interview with the Vampire for the first time, and the interminable loneliness and arrested development that afflicted Louis and Claudia and Armand struck a chord notably more authentic than overwrought pubescent melodramas like Beverly Hills, 90210 had till that point managed). Far from just a juvenile exercise in wish fulfillment, Superhero taps into the adolescent experience in a very profound, emotionally resonant way; it would behoove all writers in the genre to understand that, consciously and intellectually, in order to best exploit its possibilities and potential.
And so it was with no small degree of creative envy that I realized screenwriter Alastair Swinnerton (co-creator of Lego® Bionicle®) had effectively merged two of Great Britain’s reigning Superhero franchises—Harry Potter and Doctor Who—as I ventured into the realm of his debut young-adult novel The Multiverse of Max Tovey, first of the Hamdun Chronicles, from European Geeks Publishing (whether that was a conscious conceptual mash-up, I do not know, but that’s sure as hell how I would’ve pitched such a creatively fertile premise).
Max is an overmedicated fourteen-year-old (kudos to Mr. Swinnerton for incorporating such a topical mode of repression), short on focus and prone to bouts of anxiety, handled with kid gloves by his parents, plagued by nightly visions (of the past…?) he can’t control—vivid dreams of life-and-death battles with Romans in first-century Britain. He is different—special—and a concerted regimen of therapy and pills hasn’t helped render him any more “normal.”
Max soon learns he is descended from a line of time travelers (his nightmares were, in fact, memories buried within his subconscious) whose psyches don’t perceive time in a linear fashion, allowing them to access the past, infinite futures, and parallel presents of the “multiverse” when they dream. Furthermore, Max is uniquely positioned even among these gifted individuals as “The One”—the only known time traveler that can cross the multiverse willfully and consciously, and, thusly, is tasked with retrieving the long-lost Cross of Tofig to prevent its misuse in opening the gates of the Celtic underworld (which keep hordes of demons at bay), a quest that will take him to the battlefields of ancient Britain as well as the “alternate realities” of a present affected by timeline tampering (such as when Marty, in Back to the Future, Part II, returns to 1985 only to discover it has somehow been twisted into a funhouse-mirror distortion of the one he left), including a thriving Roman Empire—with flying warships, no less!—in the year 2014. Multiverse is the stuff of Big Adventure—and Big Imagination.
As such, the novel has no shortage of mythological, metaphysical, and historical components—this is fantasy with brains, to be sure—and that may be its biggest challenge in appealing to the YA audience for which it is intended. It draws heavily on Celtic lore—vowel-deprived Welsh words and names abound; keeping track of them is demanding enough (the author and/or publisher had the wisdom to include a glossary, which helps considerably), and then there’s the time-tripping sci-fi element on top of that, with its intricate rules (explained to Max—and, by extension, us—by a governing agency known as the Time Research Department, though chapter headings with date/location information might’ve aided reader orientation) and plot-complicating paradoxes.
“That’s the problem with Travelling through Time—you lose track of it.”—from The Multiverse of Max Tovey
Further competing for the reader’s attention are an abundance of physical devices, like a set of three time-traveling totems (a coin, a ring, and a brooch, collectively known as the Majyga), the enigmatic Voynich manuscript (repurposed here, quite cleverly, as a time-traveler’s handbook), and the aforementioned all-important Cross. All of those MacGuffins are really cool in their own right, but sometimes the sheer amount of gizmos—not to mention tropes (demons and faeries and psychokinetic spiritual possession figure into the story, as well, some of it bordering on Double Mumbo Jumbo)—distract from what should be a more straightforward “Chosen One” narrative arc. Contrast, for instance, that approach with the simplicity of the Philosopher’s Stone of the first Harry Potter novel (itself dumbed down as the “Sorcerer’s Stone” by a skittish American publisher that feared the intellectual limitations of the book’s target demographic), which kept the plot’s focus on a single object of desire that was hard to lose track of, as it was right there on the cover every time reading was resumed. World-building fantasy is more accessible, in my own (admittedly biased) perspective, when the “magic” that governs its particular rules is kept basic: All of space and time is right at the Doctor’s fingertips via a single intergalactic apparatus—the TARDIS; Marty McFly had the plutonium-powered DeLorean. The vast galaxy of Star Wars is built upon the ethereal (yet defined) notion of “the Force”; and all the considerable supernatural spectacle and alliance-shifting plot machinations of Pirates of the Caribbean are catalyzed by a lone mystical token: a cursed gold medallion. The worlds themselves are expansive and complex, you see, but the foundational laws of those lands are limited and uncomplicated.
Which is not to say, despite the excess of whatsits, Mr. Swinnerton doesn’t have fun with his core conceit. Some of the most memorable episodes of Doctor Who, after all, feature run-ins with figures from history (Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Churchill, Madame de Pompadour), and, in the course of his adventures, Max encounters the likes of medieval philosopher/alchemist Roger Bacon (the story’s antagonist), Joseph of Arimathea, Pope Alexander VI, and Leonardo da Vinci (cast here as the inventor of time travel). As a fan of both genre and historical fiction, this is the kind of thing that delights my inner geek (which may not, I fear, be nearly so well-concealed as I like to believe).
But, even the number of such real-life characters that figure into the plot are indicative of a recurring pattern in Multiverse—one of too much. There is too much Celtic mythology, too many rules to the time travel, too many plot coupons, too many historical personages crammed into a single adventure; it seems as though there are several books compressed into one here. Max’s transformational arc—that of the young “nobody” who learns over the course of a series of episodic adventures just who he really is (a path tread by Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker before him)—might have been better served if the stories had been selectively reduced, as convention prescribes, to one MacGuffin or objective apiece (Book One: Max needs to find and destroy the Majyga; Book Two: Max must recover the Cross of Tofig; Book Three: Max has to fix a time rift that’s resulted in an alternate 2014, etc.) alongside a different anachronistic sidekick each time out, much the way George Lucas’ early-nineties television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles paired the teenage archaeologist-adventurer with a new mentor in each installment (Ernest Hemingway, Lawrence of Arabia, Charles de Gaulle, and so forth), taking time to depict how each one ultimately and specifically helped shape the worldview of the Man Who Would Be Harrison Ford (to say nothing of twentieth-century philosophical thought in general). Max is an engaging archetypal hero—he’s brave and book smart and misunderstood by the people who love him most—but his emotional through line fights for real estate in a kitchen-sink plot that, for my money, could have been streamlined, or, better still, broken down into parts and used as fodder for several (more conventionally structured) stories.
“‘It’s just that… look, a week ago I was in my room at home playing Warcraft, two days ago I was in a twenty-first century mediaeval Rome, and today an almost unrecognisable Christmas was interrupted by three Faeries.’”—Max Tovey
But, given all of the above—the commendations and criticisms—here’s the counterpoint I am compelled to concede (and only time will tell if there’s any merit to it): Perhaps the “old story conventions” are, in fact, for old men (as it seems I may have prematurely become), and that Multiverse is meant for a YA audience that, like the novel’s titular hero, shouldn’t be underestimated. This is the same fan base, as it happens, that devoured phonebook-thick Harry Potter novels in a single sitting, and embraced the dystopian themes of The Hunger Games and Divergent. The fictional universe—the multiverse—of Max Tovey may be more challenging than your average YA offering, with its esoteric regional folklore and convoluted internal mythology, but the purposefully fractured linearity of this particular hero’s journey may very well resonate with a “postnarrative” generation born into a hyperlinked reality in which time isn’t so much a thing that moves forward but rather branches outward, rendering us all a bit whiplashed by the digital multiverse of Facebook, Instagram, text messages, and e-mails that yanks us to and fro without warning or transition, and leaves us longing to have the power, like Max himself, to exercise some small measure of control over the technological maelstrom. In times like these, that’s the sort of thing that seems like a superhuman feat indeed.
The Multiverse of Max Tovey by Alastair Swinnerton is available on Amazon from European Geeks Publishing.