MIT sophomore's Quest doesn't quite reach its goalQuest for the Cube
By R. A. Fredrick '95.
Illustrated by Sean Wang '93.
133 pp., $8.95.
By John Jacobs
In matters of taste, there are no absolutes. So when I say that I don't like fantasy, you can't argue with me. Don't even try. The fact that I didn't like the book isn't as interesting, though, as the fact that it's written by an MIT sophomore, Robert Frederick. Yes, we're at that age now where our peers are actually making something out of themselves. They are professional athletes, porn centerfolds, musicians, authors, millionaires, etc., and the rest of us put our pants on one leg at a time.
The book is about two warriors, Qwayne and Garth. They do a skit on Saturday Night Live in which they slay each other. No, seriously - when the war ends, they get bored. The two unemployed warriors are accosted by a legendary wizard named Menthar. He is the "boogie man" of their day, the antagonist in scary stories told to children. He's a few hundred years old, of course, but of late he's been reclusive so few of the living have actually seen him. The stories, then, seem unfair. Menthar is like the old man next door to Kevin in Home Alone - he's misunderstood.
Anyway, he turns out to be a good wizard with much knowledge. For example, he knows that it is Qwayne and Garth's destiny to seek the two halves of the "Parcelona" cube. When I read that, I expected at least one half to be in Spain. Qwayne and Garth are frightened by Menthar at first, then they think the quest is stupid, and then they don't. This is the kind of inconsistency that the book is plagued with. They finally accept their destiny and split up, one for each half of the cube. There's an entire story behind the cube, of course, and it begins like this: the cube, when made whole, will change their world from one of magic to a more predictable one in which there are scientific laws. Why Menthar split up the cube in the first place is another story, one that Frederick deals with in another book.
Anyway, of course they each find their half of the cube and heroically cause the dawn of a new age. And all that. If you read the book, more than once will you have to suspend your own disbelief. The book has many technical flaws. Bad diction runs rampant. Anachronistic diction makes a guest appearance. Unrealistic scenes are regulars. For example, there's a scene in which Qwayne returns to his hometown and is jumped by two men. It's a standard mugging-they might have said, "Your money or your life." Qwayne wants both, so he fights, killing one, and is about to kill the other when he discovers that it's his own brother. The two are suddenly joyful and go off together to the nearest tavern. Frederick doesn't explain why Qwayne didn't recognize his own brother's voice. He doesn't explain the absence of sadness for the dead guy, or why neither of the brothers are fazed by the fact that the little brother was almost killed. There was no contextual explanation either, so I made up my own: death was so common that everyone had become inured to it. But that explanation was immediately invalidated by the next scene, in which Qwayne agonizes over the deaths of his parents.
The book, I found out when I interviewed Frederick, was primarily targeted at teenagers. It's a short, unintimidating book, and a safe way to escape the horrors of adolescence. The bad guys get axed, and the good guys save the planet. Most people I know outgrew fantasy fiction by the time they were eighteen years old, but, according to Frederick, fantasy is popular at MIT. When I think about that, though, it makes sense.
So the short, bullet-like sentences and the exaggerated attention to detail are partially justified. In fact, Quest is very good for a first book (especially since I know the author), and we must remember that fantasy is an unforgiving genre. In any event, this book replaced Beowulf on the summer reading list in Frederick's hometown's county. It's been favorably reviewed by The New York Times, the Atlanta Journal, and a few science-fiction/fantasy magazines.