Book Review: I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore

“They caught Number One in Malaysia.
Number Two in England.
And Number Three in Kenya.

They killed them all.

I am Number Four.
I am next.”

I Am Number Four is a YA science fiction, and the first in a proposed six-book series called the Lorien Legacies, written under the name Pittacus Lore.

The book is told from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old boy named John Smith. Or Daniel, or any of the dozens of other identities he’s been forced to assume for the last eleven years of his life. The only name he truly has isn’t a name at all, but a number: Number Four. And if the enemy find him, he’s dead.

But who are the enemy? I believe the better question is, ‘Who is Number Four?’ John–I’ll call him that, since that’s what he goes by for most of the book–is the fourth of nine gifted survivors of the doomed planet Lorien. Each of the nine was given a number and a guardian, then blessed with a protection spell: They may only be killed in order, One and then Two and then Three and so on. Otherwise, they’re close to invincible.

The book opens with a third agonizing scar appearing on John’s ankle, and his guardian Henri burning all that they own. Number Three was dead, hunted down by the Mogadorians who destroyed their home-planet in the first place, and John is next in line. So they have to disappear, destroy all evidence of their current identities and truck halfway across the country to whatever obscure town Henri thinks they’ll be safe in next. For a little while, anyway.

This winds up being Paradise, Ohio. A small town… but as John soon discovers, the first place that feels like home.

Over the course of the book, John–with the help and protection of Henri–must balance school bullies and the first girl he’s ever truly cared about with learning to control his Legacies (Lorien powers, to put it simply) and dealing with the ever-present threat of discovery and certain death at the hands of the Mogadorians hanging over his head. Especially when they get word that the Mogs might be closer than they feared, and John is faced with a decision: Flee Paradise and vanish yet again from the enemy’s clutches, or stay with the girl he loves in the only place he’s ever truly belonged?

When I first started this book, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it had to be good enough to warrant a major motion picture, and I knew aliens were involved somehow, but beyond that I was entirely in the dark. But for the first couple of chapters, I had my doubts. Don’t get me wrong, the events unfolding were absolutely fascinating, but the writing style was one of the stiffest and most formal first-person narratives I’ve ever read.

By the time he and Henri reached Paradise, though, I was sold. I could tolerate the writing style because I was that intrigued by the character dynamic between John and Henri, let alone the fascinating premise as a whole. So many books do the ‘mentor/adoptive parent’-type characters very very wrong… But this is a case in which it was done incredibly right. Henri was my favorite character in the whole piece. He had life, personality, and even a sense of humor: Being native to Lorien, he’s still struggling a little with English curse words and occasionally brags about things like having a ‘shit good time’, to which John always replies, ‘Damn good, Henri.’ It’s not blatant humor, but it’s almost better in a way because it fits his character perfectly. And while Henri and John are most definitely mentor/student in overall roles, they feel very much like equals, which I say is another strength in the book’s character development.

In fact, the mentor/student cliche isn’t the only rule I Am Number Four successfully breaks. More than once, there’s a good 3/4 of a page in info-dumping about their home-planet of Lorien, be it in John’s personal musings or in Henri’s various lessons. But not once do I feel like it was boring, or halted the momentum of the story. The opposite, in fact–I read this just as eagerly as the action scenes. I can’t put my finger on how Pittacus Lore managed it, but I applaud him (or ‘them’, I guess I should say–Pittacus Lore is actually two authors collaborating under one pen-name).

That’s another interesting thing to note: Pittacus Lore could very well be attempting to follow in the vein of Lemony Snicket or Darren Shan, as far as giving their pen-name a role in the story itself. “Pittacus Lore is Lorien’s ruling Elder,” the back-cover bio reads. “He has been on Earth for the last twelve years, preparing for the war that will decide Earth’s fate. His whereabouts are unknown.”

Henri isn’t the only character of importance, however. There’s Sam, the school conspiracy-theorist and his first true friend. Then there’s Sarah, a fun and quirky girl whom he quickly finds himself falling in love with. And of course there’s Mark, football quarterback and asshole extraordinaire who still can’t get over the fact that he and Sarah are over and proceeds to try and make John’s life miserable as a result.

The only true complaint I have about the book, besides the stiff writing style, is the predictability. Lore creates some wonderful plot twists and surprises, but half of them are foreshadowed so heavily earlier on that by the time the grand reveal comes around, you’ve already figured it out yourself. I wish he would have made it just a little less obvious in parts to leave the thrill of surprise intact. And on a minor level, many of the chapters leave off in slightly jarring places. The last sentences of a chapter or before a page break rarely feel conclusive, so I personally found myself stumbling into the next section.

Neither of these complaints, however, detract from the fact that this was an excellent book overall, one I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys sci-fi or even fantasy (many of the sci-fi elements lack the technicality of most sci-fi, giving them a fantasy feel). I’m definitely going to read the sequel as soon as I can get my hands on it.

—————–

 What Writers Can Take Away From This

(Giving this its own section, in case I’ve got some non-writer readers just looking for the review.)

  •  Infodumps, if done right, are entirely possible. In small enough doses (the 3/4-pagers I Am Number Four belted out were pushing it). But you have to, have to have something interesting to be dumping about. Lorien was a destroyed planet that was once full of life and magic. Understanding what it was like before it was destroyed gives important insight into why John and Henri prepare to fight for it rather than just keep hiding disappear into obscurity forever.
  • If writing in the first person, it’s incredibly important to sound like your character. Even if it’s not dramatic. For example, in I Am Number Four, John used contractions but a lot of the time the first-person narrator didn’t. That among other things gave the narrative a stiff tone that I might expect if it were from Henri’s point of view, being the older of the two and having learned an entirely new language here on Earth, but not from John’s, who came to Earth at age 4 and talks pretty casually throughout the book.
  • The reader isn’t stupid. Don’t overdo the foreshadowing. For the turn of events I’m thinking of, there are hints all through I Am Number Four that point toward it. There are hints in chapter one, then scattered hints in chapters three and four; these hints alone, along with an occasional reminder-hint along the way, would have been perfectly sufficient. I figured it out even that early, but not enough to spoil the revelation. But then every time the relevant character was mentioned, there was some sort of hint. “Once again, X did suspicious activity Y,” more or less. By the time it was revealed, it was just beaten to death.
  • Use romance, don’t abuse it. I didn’t mention this in the review because I actually think Sarah’s adorable and her interactions with John are some of the more genuine I’ve seen in fiction, but when it comes down to it, for a book with this much male-appeal (aliens, fighting, superpowers), there’s an awful lot of romance scenes that don’t serve quite enough of a double-purpose advancing the plot. I understand that the author may have been trying to show the reader why John’s potentially willing to risk his life to stay with Sarah, but it just plain felt like too much.
  • Mentor/student doesn’t have to necessarily involve wise old men. In I Am Number Four, part of why I love Henri is because he teaches John and does his best to protect him even though in Lorien terms, he’s still pretty young himself. He doesn’t know all of the answers, he doesn’t have the utmost confidence in John’s abilities, and he makes stupid mistakes just like John does. And when the fight comes, he doesn’t sit back and impart knowledge, he charges in with a double-barrel shotgun and kicks some ass. They’re equals, as I said in the review, and that gives them a unique and fascinating character dynamic that I haven’t really seen anywhere else.
  • Be just as careful with endings as you are with beginnings. As much attention as you pay to creating perfect opening sentences to each book, each chapter even, you should also pay that to establishing good chapter conclusions so your reader isn’t jarred or left to dangle. For example, if your character was going to sit down and read a book that had the answers he needed, ending with ‘And he sat down.’ just isn’t conclusive. Better would be, ‘And he sat down, cracked open the dusty cover, and began to read.’ Do you feel the difference between the two? If you don’t, this may be a tougher thing for you to fix than you realize.
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