Beyonders Series, by Brandon Mull
Content Warnings: Mild scenes of torture, several suicides, lots of death, possibly objectionable use of magic, definitely objectionable use of deception, and some other things. But hey, no swearing!
I have often desired to read or, possibly, write, a portal fantasy that starts off normal and then is derailed into something crazy. This series, to my surprise, was mostly what I was looking for.
The first book, A Land Without Heroes, starts out with the sadly-now-somewhat-cliche Evil Peeps have Already Won trope. Maldor, the evil wizard-emperor, rules most of the land of Lyrian, with only a few holdouts which are either under siege or neutral. His greatest enemies have either been turned to his side, horribly maimed, tortured, or left in exile, and the only reason anyone succeeds in opposing him is out of his malign playfulness.
As I warned, there is torture and suicide in this book. The first scene is Maldor interrogating one of the last “heroes”, who he has blinded. A few scenes later, Jason Walker, our protagonist, is eaten by a magical, musical hippopotamus (I am not making this up) and lands in Lyrian, The music of the hippo is actually that of the band called the Giddy Nine, who, unable to play their music, is commiting suicide via waterfall, and their last music summons him. One of the accidental survivors of the Giddy Nine, Tark, later a main character, is driven by guilt over not dying with them. Yeah, this series is a little dark.
Jason is soon drawn into the war, when he accidentally discovers one of the six syllables of the Word that will destroy Maldor. He is soon joined by Rachel, another “beyonder”. They are soon offered the choice either to live a mostly normal life on a farm in Lyrian, or to become heroes and continue the fight. This is a common theme in this series, thankfully more common than that of the themes of suicide and torture. (Did I mention that those two were in this series?)
Unfortunately, the massive plot twist that ends Book One is inadvertently revealed by the length of the series, and half-way through the first book you can surmise that all is not as it seems. Book Two, Seeds of Rebellion, begins the derailment in earnest, with people running around doing things and other people dying. Jason learns to become a swordsman, and Rachel a sorceress. While I cannot object to the former, the latter is potentially objectionable, c.f. here and here. While Jason remains a relatively skilled but otherwise mortal swordsman, Rachel is a magical prodigy, learning the incredibly dangerous yet powerful language of Edomic.
The final book, Chasing the Prophecy, is regarding a final prophecy given by an oracle, ordering a twin set of seemingly bizarre and, yes, possibly suicidal, quests to finally defeat Maldor. The arbitrariness of the prophecy, down to the specific heroes to go on each quest, is an element with which I disagree. At one point a character takes an action which succeeds precisely because it was arbitrary. This is something I just can’t buy. Sure, it’s internally consistent, but it makes no overall sense. The ending, while good, feels a bit like a series of deus ex machinae to me. In the epilogue, for no discernible reason, one beyonder is required to return to Earth, while the other must stay.
Now for the elephant in the room, to which I have alluded multiple times: suicide and torture.
This series has no compunctions about having people take actions which will surely, or almost surely, lead to their deaths. While one could claim this is a form of martyrdom, it is not, because martyrdom involves other people killing you. Furthermore, the phoenix-like Amar Kabal kill themselves ritualistically in order to establish their future lives. I honestly don’t find this amount of suicide appropriate for a Young Adult novel, or series thereof.
Secondly, the torture is hardly justifiable, especially when it is partially described! At one point, one horribly tortured character plans to horribly torture another character. He doesn’t, but still…
(Not, mind you, that I object to either of them in the background of a Young Adult novel, but having them actively happen is another matter.)
As for explicitly religious aspects, aside from an off-hand reference to Providence once or twice, there are none. I believe that the author is a Mormon, thus explaining the relative cleanliness of the series. There is no sex. The castle of Harthenham, a sort of tempting paradise, is restricted to Gluttony and Sloth of the deadly sins. There are no demons (the torivors don’t count).
The series is incredibly creative, with several unique creatures, races, and locations, and even interesting spins on such common tropes as zombies and GIANT ENEMY CRABS. If you can get past the bad bits, this is an entirely appropriate book for Young Adults, unlike much “Young Adult” literature nowadays.