Author: Shannon Messenger
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade/Young Adult
Publication date: October 2012
Hardcover: 496 pages
Twelve-year-old Sophie Foster has a secret. She’s a Telepath—someone who hears the thoughts of everyone around her. It’s a talent she’s never known how to explain.
Everything changes the day she meets Fitz, a mysterious boy who appears out of nowhere and also reads minds. She discovers there’s a place she does belong, and that staying with her family will place her in grave danger. In the blink of an eye, Sophie is forced to leave behind everything and start a new life in a place that is vastly different from anything she has ever known.
Sophie has new rules to learn and new skills to master, and not everyone is thrilled that she has come “home.” There are secrets buried deep in Sophie’s memory—secrets about who she really is and why she was hidden among humans—that other people desperately want. Would even kill for.
In this page-turning debut, Shannon Messenger creates a riveting story where one girl must figure out why she is the key to her brand-new world, before the wrong person finds the answer first.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series
How did we get this book: ARCs from the Publisher (via BEA)
Why did we read this book: We’ve been excited for this book ever since we both laid eyes on it – it was one of our top priority ARCs at BEA! When the release date finally came around, we were ecstatic.
There are two ends of the CG animated movie spectrum. On the one side, there are gems like Wall-E and Up and Toy Story. On the other, there are the lamentable films like Fly Me to the Moon, or Robots, or Shark Tale. Granted, many kids like all of these films and there is some entertainment value to find in each of them – but there’s a huge difference in storytelling skill and in quality.
Unfortunately, Keeper of the Lost Cities falls deep on the Shark Tale end of the MG/YA spectrum. A poor man’s Harry Potter, featuring a super special snowflake of a heroine, Keeper of the Lost Cities is a sadly disappointing – and frequently laughable – dud.
But let’s start at the beginning, shall we? From the synopsis, this novel seems like it would be about a telepathic twelve year old girl that discovers secrets about her family, her true birthright, and her abilities. Right? What Keeper of the Lost Cities delivers instead is a story about ultra-beautiful, ultra-intelligent, ultra-magical elves (yes, elves), whose existence is secret from disgusting humans. It then morphs into Harry Potter knock-off land, complete with a prestigious, secret and ultra selective academy for young prodigious elves, with classes in specialized areas like alchemy and telepathy. Oh yeah, and it turns out that Sophie Foster, our protagonist, is not only superduper desirable (a humble twelve year old, but already commanding the attentions of fifteen year olds) but possesses unparalleled power and is The One who can Save them All.
I could go on and on, so let me just focus on the three areas that bothered me the most regarding Keeper of the Lost Cities: the blase treatment/combo of science and magic, Sophie’s super specialness (and unconvincing nature as a character), and the unabashed Harry Potter ripoffs.
Let’s start with Science and Magic. When it’s done well, I love a speculative fiction book that blends fantasy elements with sci fi, magic with hard science. This is, I suspect, what Shannon Messenger attempted to accomplish in this novel. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work. From very early on in the book, we learn that even “the slowest elf can still trump a human” – and that elves, apparently, know ALL the things about genetics and DNA and relative physics, but say this isn’t science OR magic. As heartthrob elf Fitz tells our heroine Sophie:
Fitz laughed – a full body laugh, like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard […] “No,” he said when he’d regained control. “Magic is a stupid idea humans came up with to try to explain things they couldn’t understand.”
But in the next breath, when Fitz starts to describe the impossible
apparating speed-of-light travel, he tells Sophie that elves “light leap”:
He held the pathfinder up to the sun, casting a ray of light onto his hand. “Light leaping. We hitched a ride on a beam of light that was headed straight here.”
“That’s impossible […] You need infinite energy for light travel. Haven’t you heard of the theory of relativity?”
She thought she had him stumped with that one, but he just laughed again. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
No further explanation, until a few pages later, when Fitz tells Sophie:
This is how the world really works. It’s not magic. It’s just how it is.
Well THAT explains everything, then. In this type of setting, magic would be completely acceptable as an explanation for feathered dinosaur pets, catching lightning in a bottle, using elderberries to transmutate iron, and so on. But instead, Keeper of the Lost Cities insists on not-science science, not-magic magic, and the end result is, well, ridiculous.
Which brings me to my next gripe: Sophie, the Special Snowflake. When we first meet Sophie, we learn that she is twelve years old, telepathic, possessing a photographic memory, and a high school senior that has been accepted at Yale University. We also learn that she is ‘the prettiest girl in school’, that she is an unprecedentedly powerful telepath, sickeningly sweet and good, and everyone rushes to her aid at slightest provocation. And I just want to include this quote, because Ana and I both had a good laugh when we read it:
Her family couldn’t be her family.
She took a deep breath and let the reality settle in.
The strange thing was, in some ways it made sense. It explained why she always felt so out of place around them – the slender blonde among her chubby brunette family.
Oh WOE! WOE! The life of a slender blonde in a chubby brunette family.
And then, finally, there’s the big whopping Harry Potter Ripoff problem. I’ll make this easy: as soon as Sophie gets to Elfland, she hears that she has been invited to attend a prestigious academy for aspiring young
witches and wizards elves called Hogwarts Foxfire. The school is presided over by a benevolent headmaster Dumbledore Dame Alina, who also gets to pick the constantly changing sweet treat password sweet treat tasting flavor that unlocks every student’s locker (on day one, the flavor is Fizzing Whizbees Mallowmelt). Harry Sophie quickly makes friends with Hermione and Ron Marella and Dex, and Dex happens to be a mudblood bad match byproduct, meaning that his parents were muggles non-noble elves. While at school, Sophie excels and is a natural at almost all of her subjects, except for potions alchemy ( Professor Snape Lady Galvin seems to really have it out for Sophie for some reason).
And on and on the list goes. I’ll stop here, though. While I’m certain there are many people out there that will enjoy Keeper of the Lost Cities, this book failed to work for me on any level.
Yes, to all that. Thea covered basically everything I wanted to say and I don’t have a lot more to add but here is my two cents. Keeper of the Lost Cities is a ridiculous book and I wish I could just make fun of it, disregard it simply as a bad book experience and think no more of it. But this is such a blatant, poor imitation of Harry Potter with the addition of extremely uncomfortable Racefail that I must look at it from a serious perspective.
I do not have anything to add to Thea’s assessment of Sophie but I have a couple of things to add to her other areas of concern – the Magic x Science conundrum and the Harry Potter Ripoffs.
With regards to the former, my main problem with the ridiculous not-science science and not-magic magic is that it results in a complete lack of internal logic and that is a way too big a flaw in the very construction of the story. The idea that the elves don’t know a lot about the human world is reinforced throughout the story – elves often wonder what a “dollar” is or what is “France”. They also insist that what they do is not science. And yet the very human scientific concept of “DNA” and genetics research is at the very centre of this story.
Regarding the clear Harry Potter Ripoff, I can add a lot more to Thea’s breakdown:
wizards elves perform spells have gifts and Harry Sophie soon learns that there are three Unforgivable Curses gifts that are frowned upon: the deadly Killing Curse, the Cruciatus Curse and the Imperius Curse the deadly Pyrokineticsm, Infliction and Mermerizing. She also learns to play the wizard’s elven game of Quidditch Catch and that there are other people who don’t really like her like the snobby Lucius Cassius.
I wish I was kidding.
And that brings me to my last point – the brown-skinned Gnomes who work for the Elves as their gardeners.
This is a world in which the vast majority of elves are described as impossibly beautiful with fair skin (there is the odd “olive” skinned elf) and shiny blue/teal eyes. And where, even though everybody works, they do so because they want to because elves are rich and don’t really need money. But basically the elves have important jobs but the Gnomes tend their gardens. And those are the only creatures within the novel described as “brown-skinned”. Then Sophia asks those Gnomes are servants and is promptly told off because of course the elves do not keep servants. The gnomes CHOOSE to live with the elves for their own protection and help them with their gardens because they enjoy it.
The obliviousness to the real-life, historical and racial implication of this point is completely mind-blowing and what made me enraged rather than potentially amused by the book.
In fairness, it is very possible that this might be addressed at some point in the series (after all, didn’t Hermione Granger address the problem of the House-Elves in the Harry Potter series?) and some readers will probably not care about the similarities to HP or even appreciate it as homage of sorts – I am not one of them. Finding the similarities between this and the Harry Potter books might actually have been fun if it wasn’t so awkward – plus the characterisation here is nowhere near as good as Rowling’s endearing creations and this means that characters here are flat, thin, poorly constructed imitations.
Ultimately this is what it boils down to: Keeper of the Lost Cities is not one of the worst books I have ever read but it is certainly one of the most laughable ones. And it made me despair that books like these even get to see the light of day.
Notable Quotes/Parts: HA HA HA. No.
Ana: 2 – Complete waste of time
Thea: 3 – Very, Very Bad
Reading Next: Only Superhuman by Christopher L. Bennett
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