Max and the Spice Thieves – John Peragine

When I was 5, I had my little address book where I’d written down all the people I needed to call in case of emergency. A couple of years later, I had to cook and shop for groceries on my own. At 10, I was obsessed with translating into Italian all the Latin sentences in The Name of the Rose, and I enjoyed doing my best friend’s trigonometry homework. If I try to recall memories of me as a teen, they just won’t come. I don’t think I ever acted like one. I might have never been able to be my own age back then, but I sure did love teen literature.

Even now that I’m a grownup –sort of–, I still have a soft spot for these kinds of stories, so when I was asked to read this novel, I was more than happy to accept.

So here I am, writing a review for Max and the Spice Thieves by John Peragine. I had high hopes for this book, and now that I’ve finished it I am sorry there is no Italian version I can read to my kids.

First of all, the cover is great. Look at it. Beautiful, huh?

As a teenager I spent several Summers on my father’s sailboat –I even have one tattooed on my ankle– and I tend to get overexcited when I see ships. Plus, I love how the elements of this cover, from the drawing to the font, to all the little details that come to be important throughout the novel, complement each other.

Can we also talk about the fact that the author dedicated his novel to his son? I don’t think there’s anything sweeter.

The premise is cool. Max’s father is missing and his mother tells him to get ready because they have to leave. My curiosity was piqued on the spot. I needed to follow this journey and see where Bettina was taking Max and, most importantly, why. It didn’t take long for Bettina to go missing too. Poor Max found himself all alone in a bad situation. The stakes were high, and I needed to know what was going to happen to this kid.

That’s where I met a character I fell in love with: Captain Cinn. I love his speech patterns, and I adore how obsessed he is with spices, because I’m the same. I could spend hours and hours talking about them. Since he is a pirate, I feel the need to point out there is a harbor like 10′ away from where I live. Just in case, you know.

Actually, most of the characters here are lovely and well crafted, from Piers to Anya, from Linzy to Prince Abad. I liked them all.

John Peragine‘s writing is on point and it never gets boring. Achieving such an elegant writing style is not for everybody, even more so because there’s a very fine line between elegance and purple prose. Not only he never crosses it, but I also find it refreshing that this elegance is being used in a book that’s meant for teens.

In fact, I may have let it slip in a tweet a couple of days ago that the book I was reading was practically perfect, and now I can say it was this one. Back then I had read up to 70%, and I couldn’t find major flaws.

Now that I’ve read it all, I only have a couple of issues with this story, which is way less than I expected given how much I enjoy to nitpick.

What? You want to know what bothered me? Great.

My pet peeve is that everybody seems to love Max. From Cinn to the Witch Queen, from Annalinda to Mesha, they tell Max how special he is or how great he is. Sure, his destiny is pretty special and I understand he needs to find strength to deal with it, but I found it hard to suspend my disbelief anyway: nobody can be liked by all the people they meet. Truth be told, I feel that he has to fail sometimes in order to learn. Failure is part of the hero’s journey, but there can’t be failure if you always have someone ready to help you and comfort you.

This point is especially true regarding Max’s immediate bonding with Annalinda. While I agree that it was perfectly natural for her to care for him because of her backstory, I would have preferred it if the affection was toned down a little bit. Mind that I’m only talking about the dialogues here, not the actions.

Books tend to have a looser structure and a lot less rules than screenplays. If there is one thing they have in common though is that inserting characters after the end of the second act is deemed risky. The third act is usually all about three things: a final confrontation, tying loose ends and an epilogue.

If I only take in consideration the number of pages in this novel, Max meets Annalinda and her husband around what I consider the all hope is lost moment to be: he is alone and scared, and doesn’t know what to do. Annalinda helps him in a way that allows him to reach a new potential, something that will be helpful to him when he arrives to the Ice Palace. This could have been the end of act two, the final injection of new information into the story, but it lead to a whole new opening instead. At this point, reading about new characters so close to the ending made me feel confused. I didn’t want to follow Max through another journey; I wanted him to find his family and I needed him to be reunited with the people he’d traveled with for the most part of the book. People that I had invested in emotionally for the previous three quarters of the story.

As it is, when they finally meet again it feels more like a deus ex machina than a real reunification, and this saddens me more than I can say, because I wanted to know how they’d found Max, how they’d known when to come to his rescue. I’ll be more than happy to wait for the sequel though, and I can’t wait to see what Max’s destiny will be and if Cinn will be the one to betray him.

I’ll stop now, I promise.

All things considered, my final vote for this novel is 8/10. Great job, mr. Peragine.

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