Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review - Substitute Creature by Jason Rekulak (writing as Charles Gilman)

Short review: Robert Arthur and Glenn Torkells come across another plot by Tillinghast to take over the world for his Lovecraftian masters, this time involving a creepy substitute teacher and a freakish blizzard.

A strange substitute
Trapped by a freakish blizzard
Lost the janitor!

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Substitute Creature is the fourth book in the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series detailing the adventures of students Robert Arthur and Glenn Torkells as they foil the attempts of Crawford Tillinghast and his otherworldly minions to take over the world. This installment, featuring a gruff janitor, a creepy substitute teacher, and a freakishly powerful blizzard, is a serviceable but somewhat anticlimactic addition to the series.

The book opens in media res with Arthur and Torkells on a tiny ledge on the fourth story of Lovecraft Middle School. After a brief explanatory background describing how the two found themselves hanging by their toes, the story returns to their predicament as they try to inch their way to safety. To make matters worse, it starts snowing while they are struggling along the ledge, making it slippery. The two are only saved when the school janitor Martin McGinnis shows up and hauls them the last few feet onto a balcony. Despite the "in the moment" excitement of the opening, it really doesn't seem to go any where, and appears to be in the book almost entirely to fill space and serve as a way introduce McGinnis to the reader. This opening sequence serves as a metaphor for the whole book: A lot of build-up and action that doesn't really seem to lead anywhere in particular, serving as nothing more than a set up for something that may or may not happen in a future story.

The blizzard that almost blows Arthur and Torkells off of their ledge in the opening chapters is forgotten for a short period when the boys try to figure out why the gate they found took them from one place in the school to another rather than Tillinghast Mansion, an effort that is stopped cold when they find out that their confidante school librarian Claudine Lavinia has been replaced by a somewhat odd substitute named Miss Carcasse. But the whirlwind of story pushes on almost as soon as Miss Carcasse is introduced, as the intensifying storm results in the entire town being shut down and the school evacuated.

From there the book moves quickly, but seems to have no particular destination. Robert Arthur and his mother are trapped at the school along with Miss Carcasse, Mr. McGinnis, a wealthy young boy named Lionel Quincy, and Arthur's ghost girlfriend Karina. Somewhat predictably Miss Carcasse acts more and more suspiciously, and on a couple of occasions worms drop out of her clothing. Mr. McGinnis discovers that the school's emergency generator has been sabotaged and Glenn Torkell's shows up half frozen after a long walk in the snow so he can give the somewhat redundant warning that Miss Carcasse is up to no good.

Given that this is a Lovecraftian story for young adults, the freakish blizzard is fairly predictably the result of Tillinghast's plotting, and Miss Carcasse has been helping things along, keeping track of her schedule on an odd gold watch. Arthur manages to uncover the goal of Tillinghast's scheming, and Miss Carcasse's role in it, but at that point the plot seems to almost vanish. Everything Miss Carcasse has done turns out to have been almost entirely irrelevant, and she herself is summarily tossed out of the story. After bringing a collection of voracious cold weather creatures from a frozen netherworld into our own, with Robert and the various other humans trapped in the school supposedly slated to serve as dinner for the ravenous beasts, Tillinghast pops into the story to divert the predators into another, completely different netherworld and have a little chat with Robert.

And that seems to sum up the book: The plot builds up like it is going somewhere, and then dissolves before leaping to something almost completely unrelated. After Miss Carcasse's unceremonious ejection from the book, Tillinghast essentially nullifies everything that happened prior to his appearance and sets the book on a completely different path in which he offers Robert a tempting moral dilemma. But, seemingly like everything else in the book, the moral dilemma is resolved without Robert actually doing much of anything.

On the whole, this book felt like a place holder that did little more than set up future books. Plot elements are introduced, and then don't go anywhere. Villains take the stage, and after preening for a bit, they walk off without doing much of anything. New characters are introduced and then excised without actually doing much with respect to the limited amount of plot that there is in the book. And the small amount of plot and character development that is in the book seems almost entirely aimed at setting the stage for future books. As a linking book between the earlier ones in the series and the books to come, Substitute Creature is an enjoyable interlude in the larger story. However, on its own, the book is slightly disappointing.

Previous book in the series: Teacher's Pest

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