Thanks to Monty Python, Harry Potter, and several attractive, male, British actors who shall remain nameless . . . (I’m just sayin’) . . . AND pretty much the entirety of World War II, I am a confirmed anglophile.
So, when Terry Pratchett opens Only You Can Save Mankind with “a boy named Johnny Maxwell. He’s English, but then, no one’s perfect,” well, I’m in. With that sly British wit and understated, bordering on inscrutable, dialogue, Pratchett doesn’t disappoint in writing a dryly funny and poignant book about the blurring lines between video games and war games. What Pratchett must think of Modern Warfare 2 and Gears of War, I can only imagine!
RL: 3.9 CSM: 8+ Rating: PG-13 Content: main character kills to defend others
This book has a low reading level (RL 3.9), mostly due to its spare use of language, but it is decidedly a thinking book. It was written in 1992 (with an intro update in 2004), during the Gulf War, when smart bombs made the evening news resemble the video games of the day. Pratchett takes this phenomena and spins a tale where a boy enters a game, for realz, and is responsible for saving the ScreeWee aliens from the bloodthirsty humans, who mistakenly think it is all just a game. The blurring of gametimedreamtimerealtime in the book makes it difficult to follow at times, but intentionally so by the author, trying to imitate the blurring of games vs. reality. But the subtle satire and arching themes may be lost on young readers.
I’m reminded of children’s films where the double-entendre-sly jokes go right over the little one’s heads, because they are aimed at the adults accompanying the minors. In Pratchett’s book, I would caution that much of the book is aimed pretty high. However, children that can comprehend the subtler themes will come away with questions about the propriety of war and killing and rules of engagement. This can be a fine teachable moment, if you are ready for it, and they are. In the end, Johnny kills an alien, to protect his friend, introducing the idea of justified killing. A heavy topic, to be sure, which earns this book its PG-13 rating. But it’s handled well, and there is not an excess of violence. In fact, the whole book revolves around an avoidance of violence and has much to commend it. I recommend that parents use caution, but this could be a brilliant book for mature readers 10+.
Only You Can Save Mankind is the first in the Johnny Maxwell trilogy, followed by Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb. Parents should proceed with caution on these books as Johnny is a teen in the later books, as well as other Terry Pratchett books, many of which are aimed at young adults and older.
Also: British humor.
“On top of it all, his father came upstairs to be fatherly. This happened about once a fortnight. There didn’t seem to be any way of stopping it.”
I might have to see if there’s a Pratchett cult I can join.