Boarding-school kid Chad thought that class bullies were bad enough, but then he falls into an alternate, magical realm, where he faces slavery (and worse) under predatory Orcs.
Though the title evokes a Piers Anthony “Xanth” whimsy, author Saur’s YA novel aspires to be serious business—perhaps excessively so, drawing upon themes of bullying, the horrors of slavery/human trafficking and violent death at the claws of cannibalistic creatures. Somehow, the genre-leaping stuff hangs together. After a heroic-fantasy opening in which a boy’s courage keeps the minion of an Orc master from getting a magic ring (yes, another one of those rings), we’re in contemporary Virginia. George Mason’s School of Boys is a rural boarding institution for castoff kids, mostly sons of dysfunctional rich families. In that environment, hazing and torment thrive under sadistic upperclassman Jason, protégé of the shady headmaster. Initially passive protagonist Chad is among a new class of 11- and 12-year-olds, deposited while his distant parents try to patch up their marriage. As his peers unite to stand up to Jason and his stooges, Chad keeps to himself. Half the book is a realistic narrative of the bullying (on an evolutionary scale below The Chocolate War) and the interconnected relationships of the young ensemble. Chad can no longer stay neutral when he gets pushed into a mysterious pool on the wooded school property. He finds himself in Eto, aka “Otherworld,” a Tolkienesque place occasionally open to Earth outsiders. He suffers brutal, degrading slavery in the thinly sketched society, where grotesque, man-eating Orcs (just like the ones in the movies, characters repeatedly say) are a coexisting race. Chad’s travails inspire a bloodthirsty Orc hunting-party invasion of George Mason’s School. This unites the boys, victimized and victimizer alike, against the fearsome foe. It’s a battle royal conveyed by Saur with considerable brio and deft action despite Orc fatalities far outnumbering the human ones (even a lucky BB-gun shot takes one monster out). That the storytelling is stronger than mere Peter Jackson fan-fiction helps canned lessons of teamwork, courage and bullying-is-bad go down better than a typical government-issued school lunch. But don’t go and make a Hobbit of it.
Uneven but exciting blend of anti-bullying PSA and Tolkien takeoff.