Bibliomancy for Beginners: Nostalgia Junkie: Pendragon: The Merchant of Death by D. J. MacHale

Hello my lovelies! I know I haven’t been around to blog and crap, but I’ll do that tomorrow.

No, I mean it!
No, I mean it!

But in the meantime, you can watch myself and another wonderful book blogger, The Pied Piper Calls (a.k.a. Michaela), chat about another YA book that sucks considerably less: Pendragon, a kids’ series by D. J. Machale that’s . . . kinda silly, but relatively fun:

And in case you don’t feel like watching an almost-hour-long chat, I decided that having a life is for losers and transcribed the whole damn thing for you. Well . . . some of it. An abridged version. It’s really long, guys, and my back hurts from being hunched over a computer for almost an hour.

But I’m doing it anyway. Don’t say I don’t love you, kittens.

[starting around 0:07]

Michaela: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to what I’m calling “Nostalgia Junkie,” which is a branch off of Bibliomancy for Beginners (which is a book club that I host). This is going to be every single week, and we’re going to be reading one of the Pendragon books, which is one of my favorite childhood series, every week. And Casey is going to join us for this —

Casey: Hello!

Michaela: — because she likes reading children’s books and talking about them.

Casey: And it’s payback for forcing you guys through A Series of Unfortunate Events.

[skipping past introductions, to 3:05]

Michaela: Today we’re going to be talking about the first book in the Pendragon series, which is titled The Merchant of Death.

Authorial interjection: it's a bit of a melodramatic title. The "merchant of death" doesn't actually show up until the last act or so.
Authorial interjection: it’s a bit of a melodramatic title. The “merchant of death” doesn’t actually show up until the last act or so.

I will read the description that Goodreads has on it:

Bobby Pendragon is a seemingly normal fourteen-year-old boy. He has a family, a home, and even Marley, his beloved dog. But there is something very special about Bobby.

He is going to save the world.

And not just Earth as we know it. Bobby is slowly starting to realize that life in the cosmos isn’t quite what he thought it was. And before he can object, he is swept off to an alternate dimension known as Denduron, a territory inhabited by strange beings, ruled by a magical tyrant, and plagued by dangerous revolution.

If Bobby wants to see his family again, he’s going to have to accept his role as savior, and accept it wholeheartedly. Because, as he is about to discover, Denduron is only the beginning…

Casey: Bobby is Jesus. Spoiler warning. (Actually, I haven’t read them all; Bobby might not be Jesus. I’m just guessing.)

Michaela: Kind of . . . not entirely.

Casey: Bobby is pseudo-Jesus.

It could always be worse.
It could always be worse.

Michaela: Fun fact for those of you who are 90s kids: if you watched Are You Afraid of the Dark? as a kid . . .

[talking about the show vs. Goosebumps; skipped ahead to 4:40]

One of the writers for that show was the author of this book, and he also wrote for a lot of shows that I really loved growing up, like Flight 29 Down and Ghostwriter.

And he pitched this as a book series in its entirety and got it signed when he pitched it. So I always commended this series for the fact that it is one of the most complete and put-together children’s series that I have. I know that one of the things we talked about when we were talking about A Series of Unfortunate Events was that the first couple books were like the same book over and over again, before it sort of got a plot that overarched through the whole thing. This always has a forward-moving plot that has to do [with], and ties all of the books together.

[spoiler warning: here be spoilers. Skipped to 5:41 for spoiler-free short reviews]

Casey: I definitely think it’s, um . . . to an extent it starts off (like I said, I haven’t finished the series, and Michaela gives me lots of reason to believe that it gets . . . different) —

I am eloquence personified.
I am eloquence personified.

— it starts off as a bit of a Magical Boy Narrative — but hey, so did Harry Potter. If you like fantasy, if you like reluctant heroes . . . it’s a really clever world. I’d give it a shot.

[chatting about it being out of print; skipped to 6:37, where I’m an asshole about the covers of these books]

Casey: I’m sorry, but this is not the most popular boy in school. This is the boy who gets his head shoved in a toilet. Just . . . no. No, this is not the one the head cheerleader makes out with. I’m sorry, it just isn’t.

Yeahhhhhh . . . no.
Yeahhhhhh . . . no.

Michaela: The head cheerleader doesn’t make out with him! It’s the team captain of the soccer team. She’s also a sporty girl.

Casey: [garbled nonsense because the internet sucks that translates to “Ehhh . . . I thought she played volleyball too.”] But we’ll get there. Oh well. I like Courtney.

[more spoiler warnings and pimping our blogs; skip to 8:15]

Michaela: Do you have a favorite part? Do you remember a favorite part?

Casey: Yeah, um . . . First off, I have to say that the first 50 pages or so, I was really, really nervous. I was like, “Oh man, we’re gonna be talking about all 10 of these.” ‘Cause it’s a wee bit dated. But I have to say around the time Osa dies — sorry, spoilers, but you were warned. Why are you still here? — I think it took a turn that . . . made it better, I guess, for lack of a better word. So I would say the latter chunk of the book is . . . not really a favorite part, but I liked it a lot, especially compared to the beginning.

The thing I guess I would call my favorite because it is what I remembered years later before picking up this book — I only remembered: I believe Mark ends up with Courtney, which is great because I shipped it, and the quigs in the coliseum.

Apparently they don't actually hook up. My ships never seem to work out.
Apparently they don’t actually hook up. My ships never seem to work out.

I remember that, because that was awesome. And it’s still awesome, years later. That definitely holds up.

[my nonsensical blathering; skipped to 9:38]

Michaela: I was going to say (and you mentioned it) Osa’s death being my favorite part, not because it made me happy, because it definitely did not do that, but both rereading it and reading it as a child, it was kinda this huge moment in this book. You’re expecting the good guys to win, you have this warrior woman that Bobby is in awe of, and she dies. And you’re just kinda like, “Oh shit. What?” There’s this moment of “oh, God . . .”

Casey: And it’s Bobby’s fault.

Michaela: And then there’s Loor there, and you’re confused about . . . like, she sort of has to keep fighting despite the fact that literally her mom just died, and it was just this huge weight dropped on this book.

[adorable anecdote about teeny Michaela that I’m not writing because I’m getting lazy; skipped to 10:57]

Casey: I don’t remember when I read this. [way too much time trying to figure out how old I was in 2002; skipped to 11:08] I think I got into it around like 3rd or 4th grade-ish. Which I think at least the 1st book is perfect for. Older and younger kids can enjoy it, but . . . the writing style . . . definitely reminds me of that age.

Michaela: Yes.

Casey: Lots of exclamation points. And slang. The slang is hilarious. [small skip] I think it eased up later in the book, but like, there’s one point where it’s like, “Oh, man! Press is gonna die!” I was like, “Geez!”



[making fun of slang; tiny skip to 11:52]

Michaela: I would like to talk about the description of Loor’s outfit when she comes to Second Earth.

Casey: Oh yeah . . . she was hot. I got that.

Michaela: She was dressed in denim overalls, “and a tight pink sleeveless shirt that showed off her powerful shoulders and arms. She even had on Doc Martin black boots” and I’m like, way to talk about every early-2000s teenagers’ outfit. Like it’s so old now. She’s wearing overalls? Gross.

Casey: Overalls are coming back.

Michaela: I know, cause 90s are coming back, and they were a huge thing in the 90s and kinda lasted a little bit into early 2000s. And there are a lot of little things like that that really date this book that you don’t realize cause you were reading it at the time that all of these references had a point.

[more discussion on how dated it is, followed by some insane blathering on my part about how a) I love Animorphs and b) it’s possible to remove references to make things less dated, but is that better than having something seem silly and nostalgic? and c) the 90s is coming back. Skipped to 14:22]

Michaela: Do you have any rants that you want to rant about? Or least favorite parts?

Casey: Um . . . like I said, it took me a while to get into, just at first. And I will say, for the first book — while I did really enjoy it — at this point the characters seem a little generic, in that you have your feisty badass warrior girl, and you have your magical boy who’s “seemingly normal.” He’s a “seemingly normal” sports star/genius/most popular kid in school, cause that exists.

Who, I must stress again, looks like this.
Who, I must stress again, looks like this.

Michaela: Basically Mary Sue?

Casey: A little bit. But then they deconstruct that later, if that’s the word I’m looking for. They undo it later, which is good. That’s when I thought the book started to turn up. But, um, and you know Mark is the geek, and Courtney is the other cool girl. And don’t get me wrong, I liked them, but it was like, “oh.” It felt a little like My First Tropes, kind of thing.

It’s so nice to be able to add gifs to explain my weird references. Otherwise no one understands what the hell I’m talking about.

Michaela: I don’t wanna spoil anything, but I will say that, partially in this book and definitely throughout the series, that changes. For sure. They deconstruct those stereotypes.

Casey: [garbledness that says: “Yeah, I started figuring it was intentional” and then something I can’t figure out that ends in calling Bobby a weenie. Because he totally is. Skip to 10:64]

Michaela: I will agree that that kind of bugged me. I will say that from a design perspective, I didn’t have any problem with this when I was reading it as a child, but as an adult, the fact that there’s different typefaces for the journals and for Mark and Courtney’s section bugged me. Because it takes me out of the book because I noticed it, and I don’t see why it was necessary.

Because Bobby’s journals are written in the typeface that we expect from books. It’s very standard. But the sections of what’s happening in the real world with Mark and Courtney have this weird, kind of bolded, blockier text, I guess. From a design perspective, that kinda took me out of the story.

[more chatting about type, which is full of interesting insights and theories on Michaela’s part but long so I’m tired of typing; skip to 20:26]

Michaela: I guess the other thing that I would note is that Bobby is a really good writer! Like, for somebody who’s just writing journals home to his friends, he knows how to set up cliffhangers.

Casey: Yeah! It was like he was sitting there and then, “That’s the end of chapter 4.”

Is this unfair? I just really wanted to use it again.
Is this unfair? I just really wanted to use it again.

Michaela: I realize that they’re not broken up like this, most likely, but even still, within the writing it’s structured so that you follow a sort of format when you’re reading it. Like “will he or won’t he survive?” I mean, he’s writing this thing so obviously he survived, but you kind of forget that as you’re reading it and with the way he writes it. I don’t know. Talent.

Casey: Though actually, that is something that I did notice. I don’t think I would’ve picked up on it as a kid, but I’m not a fan of journal stories like this — I guess “epistolary narratives” is a better term for it — but because [garbled mess that I assume means something along the lines of “because he’s writing it, it kills some of the tension, because it’s obvious he survives.”] I guess that might be why, for a big chunk of the book — probably until he returns to Second Earth for supplies — I cared a lot more about Mark and Courtney than I did about Bobby.

Michaela: I would say that I remember as a child reading this, I always cared more about Mark and Courtney. To the point that sometimes, if I wasn’t enjoying what Bobby was doing, I would skip his sections, read all the Mark and Courtney sections, then go back and read all the Bobby sections. Because they are so personable!

[awkwardness where I drown her out. Sorry, Michaela. Skip to 22:29]

Casey: And it took about 2 seconds — and I will apologize if I’m wrong — in about 2 seconds Bobby’s like “Loor hates me,” and I’m like “So they’re get together.” Like, well there you go.

Michaela: It sets up a love triangle.

[hatred of love triangles, talking about how it’s more boy-centric than many other YA novels, and differences between Loor and Courtney; skip to 23:55]

Casey: But I like her by the end, more or less.

Michaela: Loor?

Casey: Yeah.

Michaela: Loor sort of grows on you across the series; Loor more or less is in every single book, I think. It’s sort of stated in this that Loor and Bobby are kind of together the whole time. They both are here on the first planet, and they go to every single one consecutively along, whereas some of the other travelers like Alder are not there constantly. They’re there when their specific skills are needed.

And I feel like that’s because Bobby is supposed to be the brain, and Loor is supposed to be the brawn of their operation. Because he cannot fight. At all. Despite being a basketball star, and very agile, he cannot fight. And I don’t know why Uncle Press, who’s supposed to be training him to be the next savior of the planet, would not have brought him to like karate or something.

[more making fun of Bobby the weenie; skip to 25:09]

Casey: I really disliked Loor in the beginning because she was your generic [garbledness: “strong female badass who’s unreasonably angry at everything”] because for some reason a lot authors think that strong female characters have to be violent and badass instead of having a personality. But like we’ve said . . . Osa’s death is a turning point when we start to see that she has —

Michaela: Feelings?

Casey: — a personality, yeah. Feelings besides disdain and badassery. And I like that there’s a couple times she admits she’s wrong. Which I thought was good. I thought if he was trying to write a “strong confident woman,” she wouldn’t admit she’s wrong, because that would . . . take away from her badassery or whatever. God, I hate that character [trope].

Unless it's Chandler. He's the best strong, confident woman.
Unless it’s Chandler. He’s the best strong, confident woman.

Michaela: I feel like when we go to Loor’s home territory, you sort of learn why she is the way she is, and along with that, she grows across the series, getting to know Bobby more. And part of it was that she didn’t know him, and the other part is that he can’t fight worth shit, and she values people who fight. He can’t fight, he’s not worth shit; he’s just a liability at this point. Like, why is he here?

Casey: To be fair, he asks that question a lot. And you’re kind of inclined to agree with him. But he is smart; I appreciated that. As much as I love Harry Potter, another magical boy narrative that I thought shared some similarities with this, [talking about why Pendragon isn’t necessarily a Potter ripoff, but is close] you get the idea that he [Harry] just sort of . . . stumbles into things, and kind of let his friends (by which I mean Hermione and Dumbledore) carry him through. And Bobby is a bit more self-sufficient than that. And his Dumbledore is Press, and Press seems like less of a douchebag, but also a lot more helpful.

Michaela: Yes, definitely helpful, a lot more gifted in what he does.

[explaining a magical boy narrative; the short version is an ordinary kid learning they’re very important and super badass, but not necessarily having magical powers; followed by a chat about high schools in fiction and teen politics, and a discussion about how it’s set in CT; skip to 30:46 unless you want the long version]

Casey: One thing I really did like is generally . . . with your magical boy narratives, your hero has to leave behind the old world. Like, this is done in Harry Potter because his life sucks in the old world, so you’re happy that he gets to leave the Dursleys. But it kinda seems callous when the hero’s just like “See ya! I don’t care about you anymore! Goodbye!” [fumbling for an example]

His family basically disappears. So what I like is that he doesn’t just say “Screw you, family!”; like, he would go back home if he could, and it causes angst, and hopefully it’ll cause more angst later, cause it was right at the end so there wasn’t much time for angst. But yeah, I liked that. I always thought a lot of times — oh hell, Twilight; Bella Swan saying, “See you, Dad! I’ll never see you again because I’m gonna go hang out with hot vampires.” And you always kinda feel like, hey, you’re being an asshole. But I don’t get that here, which I like.

But really, who wouldn’t leave everyone they know and love behind for this?

Though I do hope they explain how the parents responded to a guy who was obviously not related to them, showing up at their home and taking him [Bobby] out places, and not finding that creepy.

Basically, Uncle Press is not Bobby’s uncle, which you don’t find out until the end of the first book, but he’s sorta been, like, mentoring him, and I don’t know if there were false memories involved or what, or everyone just sorta accepted the weird potential sexual predator who shows up and kidnaps their son, I don’t know.

[talking about the setting, MacHale’s other series; skip to 33:45]

Casey: I would like to see this guy try to do “dark.” I didn’t get far enough into the first series to really get “dark,” and I’m really glad you were moved by Osa’s death . . . I sort of wasn’t, cause I didn’t really know her, and I was not at a point where I liked Bobby or Loor yet, so I was kinda like, “Well, I mean, she was gonna croak, obviously.” But, um, I like that he was willing to go there, and I would like to see him have a chance to do that. I worry that it’ll always be sort of diluted by the fact that it has to come from Bobby, in his voice, in this journal-writing style.

Michaela: Or Mark. I was just realizing why I think that typeface is the early-2000s internet typeface. That’s Mark’s perspective, and Mark’s the computer nerd. That’s why: cause it’s his voice, and his voice would come from the computer nerd font — slash possibly typed on that computer.

[skipping again because fingers are tired; skipped to 35:21]

Michaela: It gets darker, but it has to do with the fact that — and I think this book sort of does that, but not as much as some of the later books do — that this is not a “right vs. wrong” narrative.

Casey: Yay! I love those . . . all my favorite children’s series in particular seem like it’s right vs. wrong, and then it’s not.


Michaela: Right. So in this one we have the poor mining community . . . and the richer, aristocratic knight community that the poor mining community has to constantly give fuel to. You have the idea that they’re supposed to be fighting with the poor mining community, and then when the poor mining community makes this bomb that would allow them to fight back, Uncle Press says “no no no no no! They can’t do that. We’re not here to help them have a revolution; we’re here to keep the peace.” If they have their revolution, then Saint Dane wins.

So you think this whole book that you’re fighting with these underdog people who are are totally treated like crap.

Casey: Oh yeah, MacHale goes above and beyond to make them like . . . the orphans in Oliver Twist have joyous lives in comparison.

Michaela: And you, as the reader — especially an American audience — is compelled to be like, yeah, get this revolution. They have this weapon, they can fight back! And to have the one character that you sort of look up to this whole novel say, “We’re not for that; we’re actually going to have to actively stop that from happening,” is insane.

Casey: And I like that it doesn’t then go, “Twist! The people we thought were good guys are bad guys!” Like, the people who want to use the bomb, they’re not evil all of a sudden. You still like them, and you still understand. Really, the only one that is pure evil, ooooh, is Saint Dane, who has a kind of stupid name, but that’s okay. And I have the feeling, just by the way that everything’s been set up so far, he’s gonna get a lot more interesting. Right now he’s just kind of your generic bad guy, evil laugh.

Michaela: He’s a magical boy. He can change his appearance real well.

Casey: Oooooooh, spoooooooky! Too spooky.


I mean he’s okay. At the moment he’s like, he just wants to watch the world burn.

Michaela: He’s a little one-note, yes. And I don’t know if he gets more interesting — like you don’t really learn his motives or anything; maybe in the last book you do — but he gets more desperate as the series goes on.

Casey: He gets a little Olaf’d?

Michaela: Yes. And you find out that he’s had hands in a lot of pots that you didn’t realize he had his hands in. The entire series, all along. So there’s sort of this idea of like, oh shit, Saint Dane’s fucking things up! What’re you doing?

Casey: That was your reaction at like 12. “Oh shiiiit! He’s fucking things up!”

[silly voices; short skip]

Michaela: He gets crazy . . . like he’s always — you can tell that he’s evil. Like he’s very clearly evil, and you know that Bobby hates him, but he gets more and more homicidal and more and more desperate, and starts breaking the rules more. Because he followed most of the rules in this book; there are certain rules set up in this universe that you need to follow, that Bobby breaks in this book.

Casey: And so does Loor. I’m sorry, I’m not buying that “you knew it was wrong! I didn’t!” Like, didn’t your mom tell you that? Come on. Whatever. You’re not supposed to bring stuff from home; he brings stuff from home and that’s how the bomb can go off. But it was badass. I loved that.

[me babbling, trying to figure out if there’s anything else worth saying and me recapping basically all the major characters so far; Michaela talks about her favorite characters, who aren’t part of this book so I’m skipping to 43:02]

Casey: One thing I liked — they did this in Animorphs, too — when people like Mark and Courtney are brought together for a reason, it’s not like all of a sudden now they’re best friends and they hang out all the time. There’s a period of months, maybe (we don’t really know), but they grow apart, because they don’t have anything in common and they run in different circles. So I guess I liked that. I liked that it wasn’t like “We shared an experience! Let’s be bffs forever and ever and ever!”

I thought that was realistic; in the story of magical traveling universes, I appreciated the realism.

Michaela: Yes. That the jock girl and nerd guy didn’t become best friends because they both like Bobby.

Casey: Overall, I thought this was very, very fun. I don’t think I’ll be reading it again every year, but if I have kids, I’ll definitely be like, “Hey, give this a shot.”

[wrapping up and saying bye and all that; a couple last shots at the art on these covers]

According to Michaela, this is a scuba suit. I see nothing but lavender turtleneck.
According to Michaela, this is a scuba suit. I see nothing but a too-tight lavender turtleneck.

This is a lot of work (it took over 2 hours) and I’m lazy, so I’m not sure I’ll be doing this again, but on Sundays we will be discussing each book in this series, and it should be fun. I’ll post the videos, at least.

If I’m not a total liar, you’ll see some John Green hatred tomorrow night! Look out for it! 🙂


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