After suffering disappointment, an ingenious boy from Manhattan takes a train to a wondrous world and embarks on a quest in this debut middle-grade fantasy novel.
Hugo Doppel looks forward to the annual Mad Science Day at his elementary school, Great Beacon Academy, because he plans to present his latest invention: a machine with the ability not only to create any weather he desires, but also to stop current conditions. Unfortunately, when his machine fails to prevent the snow coming down during his demonstration, he becomes the school’s laughingstock. Dejected, he starts to walk home, coming across an old subway token for something called the “Menlo Express.” He wishes he could be whisked away from Manhattan to a place of adventure, and soon, in a burst of snowflakes, he is, finding himself in a train station he’s never heard of before that is curiously named after him. Boarding the train, he winds up at the Junkyard of Goofy Inventions, guarded by Inventaur the Centaur, whose boss, Henry Pendleton, presents him with a letter from Magnus Winterbach the Wizard. The missive states that Hugo’s discovery of the mysterious token signifies that he is meant to free Magnus and many others from the tyrannical rule of the Skull Face Witch, who has wreaked havoc on the Kingdom of Menlo for many years. Weger stuffs his ambitious novel with fanciful scenes and whimsical characters, arguably to a fault. Although Hugo proves to be a resourceful and likable hero, the book relies less on plot and character development to propel the narrative, focusing instead on increasingly silly worldbuilding—including a desert of wet sand, an anthropomorphic bus, enormous cockroaches, and more. These facets, which are often entertaining, ultimately become exhausting, rarely providing true storytelling substance. While the novel often hearkens back to other classic examples of children’s literature, in which young, ordinary protagonists travel to magical lands, it rarely displays the finesse and heart of such genre titans as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and the Narnia series.
This extended exercise in often overflowing imagination needs more authenticity, grounding, and restraint to allow its tale about a young inventor to truly soar.