About six weeks ago, I caught the tail end of the movie version of I am Number Four on TNT or USA or one of those other cable networks. I had seen it before and found it a mindless way to spend 90 minutes, but not particularly great. (Though Timothy Olyphant is always appreciated.) The movie ends with a set-up for future movies and this made me wonder about the book—whether there was more to the story and whether the book had done it better. Well, now I have my answer . . . which is no.
There are some interesting ideas buried in this opening act of a sci-fi series, but it all feels very unwieldy and awkward. The basic plot is this—our hero, who currently goes by the name, “John Smith” (yes, because nothing makes you seem more like you’re on the run or in witness protection than a cliché alias . . . had they used John Doe already?) is on the run with his mentor/protector, Henri. They move from town to town, trying to blend in and avoid attention, because “John Smith” (or Number Four) is one of nine alien children who escaped to earth after their home planet, Lorien, was destroyed by another race of aliens, the Mogadorians. That’s about as much plot summary as I really want to get into here because that’s where this book begins to fall apart for me—the Mogadorians are hunting these nine children (now teens) but they can only kill them in order (because of some magic something or other done to the children when they fled Lorien). The children have separated and are trying to stay alive, with the help of their protectors, until they come into full possession of their powers (yes, because there are always powers).
As a huge BTVS fan, I’m fond of books/stories that both create parallels between crazy, supernatural events and the crazy that is high school, as well as protagonists who just want to be normal/fit in/go to prom even while they’re destined to be the kickass hero that saves the world. That tension between fitting in/being a part of something and standing out/being alone is one that we’ve all felt and it makes for good TV and YA literature. Again, that isn’t what’s happening here. We have an alien race that is just like us, only with powers. We have a “big bad” that is simply big and bad and often not too bright. We have a lot of characters, who never fully rise above their “roles” in the plot—Sam, the nerdy friend who believes in alien conspiracies, Mark, the dick-ish football player, and the girlfriend, Sarah. That relationship, alone, in all its unreality, made me want to throw the book against the wall. Yes, John Smith says he wants to stay in Paradise, Ohio and be a normal teen but the book never really makes me feel it.
One bright spot in this book was Bernie Kosar, a dog that adopts John and Henri when they move to Ohio and who has more personality than any of the other characters. I think I want a book told from the point of view of Bernie Kosar. The other benefit I gained from reading this is I am inspired to track down a copy of Escape to Witch Mountain (the Alexander Key novel on which the Disney movie was based), which was a formative book from my 1970’s childhood.
So, in case you couldn’t tell, I found this book extremely unsatisfying and won’t be reading any more in the series. I know I’m more than three decades older than the book’s target audience and that this is wildly popular series so my lack of interest won’t hurt James Frey’s royalties. However, is it wrong for me to want a bit more in my “teen alien on earth” story?