Thursday, 3 April 2014

review: Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage

by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith
Quirk Books, February 4 2014
middle-grade contemporary
review copy received via publisher (thank you!)

After solving a kidnapping, Nick and Tesla's summer hasn't calmed down just yet: their friend Silas's father just got robbed, and without the valuable comic that was stolen the family shop might go under. Then robberies start springing up around town, with the only suspects being a series of robots that are coming from the new owner of a shop... who their Uncle Newt just happens to be in love with!
The cover:

Whoever came up with the base design for this series is a genius. The blocking of "Nick and Tesla's" above the title makes it easy to swap out the new title for each book in the series, and the small details (the eyes in "Robot", the coloured rectangles to the right of the title, the gears) make this cover wonderfully easy on the eyes. Then, of course, there's the actual illustration: an excellent sense of movement draws our attention to our protagonists in the centre.

The book:

This sequel to Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab (which I also reviewed) is almost entirely an all-around improvement — which is something, considering I rated the first a 4.3 out of five. The humour is perhaps the standout: ramped up somehow, intangibly, there are a lot of funny situations and conversations which Nick and Tesla find themselves in, and the authors don't hesitate to use the most prominent adult, their Uncle Newt, for comic relief.
"You're just trying to provoke me," Nick said. "You know I'm just as good with electronics are you."
"Oh? How much you wanna bet?"
Tesla gave her brother a hard, challenging stare.
He was right about her trying to provoke him. But that didn't matter.
Because it still worked.
"How about five million dollars?" Nick said.
Tesla shook her brother's hand.
"It's on, dude," she said.
(p. 36)
A stylistic choice that separates this book from the first is the time spent in Nick's head; that is to say, the omniscient point-of-view is scaled back in favour of a more limited-third-person perspective in the form of Nick's thoughts. This is somewhat disappointing, given that Tesla's the only girl in the group of four friends (Nick, Tesla, Silas and DeMarco); it'll be interesting to see whether they move further into Nick's head in the next book, or switch to Tesla, or perhaps revert to omniscient. Nevertheless, both of our main characters feel authentic, and the strongest instances of characterization occur when their contrasts to each other are highlighted.

Once again, the secondary characters are beautifully developed: Silas and DeMarco get into plenty of trouble with Nick and Tesla, and their respective responses to each situation makes for humour and also insight into their characters. The adults involved are portrayed with efficient strokes (Angela, for example, needs only one page to establish her loquacity), and the introduction of new character Hiroko Sakurai is a positive for both drawing out another shade of Uncle Newt's character and also boosting the diversity in this book.

The propulsion of the plot renders it very quick-paced, yet still makes time for the series's larger arc involving the mystery of their parents' job and disappearance. Though there isn't much of a lead-up tension-wise to the climax, the plot twist ties into the final action scene nicely, and a last mysterious phone call pulls readers closer to the overarching mystery and the next book.

And of course, the science experiments! This time they're robot-themed, very diverse in scope and as before, well-integrated in the story. In fact, I continue to be awed by the way a concept book like this can integrate the story and the DIY part so well. At this point it's unsure how many books there'll be in this series, but from a reader's standpoint there isn't any reason to slow down yet. Full steam ahead with this delightful, original MG series.

Ethnic balance: 3 out of 5. Added one WOC, but she plays a major role, so I'll bump up the rating 1 whole mark.

Rating: 4.4 out of 5