Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Guy Friday- Emperor of the Universe Series

Lubar, David. Emperor of the Universe (#1)
July 2, 2019 by Starscape
Copy provided by Edelweiss Plus

Seventh grader Nicholas V. Landrew, whose parents are touring in Australia as part of the Beagles Beetles' tribute bad, has been suspended for bringing a light saber to school. He didn't threaten anyone with it; he just wanted to hear the fantastic whooshing sound it would make in the gymnasium. He is suspended, and manages to get himself some alone time by telling the two adults who are supposed to watch him (his Aunt Lucy, who is a Marine, and his Uncle Bruce, who teaches juggling) that he is staying with the other person. Unfortunately, when he is home, his pet hamster Lucy is suddenly zapped by a strange light and disappears! He puts a pound of hamburger in the cage, and when that is also zapped, he carefully stands inside as well, and begins his wonderful and sometimes terrifying adventure!  He ends up on a Craborzian ship, where he stomps on the caterpillars with tentacles that are threatening him, getting him wanted for murder, and also activates their GollyGosh! a device which grants sentience to both Henrietta and the pound of hamburger, which Nick names Jeef. When a Menmarian pirate and social media influencer named Clave takes over the ship, he helps the three escape, saying that Nick is supposed to be taken to central Klizmick to meet with the president. Nick has been chosen to lead a battle because of the Craborzi massacre, and is considered a fierce fighter. Of course, he's still just a seventh grader who wants to text his parents and find a way to get home while taking some of Clave's cargo of "scrap" gold with him! There are a lot of adventures, including being approached to obliterate the Zefinorians, meeting Morglorb, a sort of intergalactic publicist, almost getting caught on a self-destructing plante, and getting Spott, a singer, back to his home planet. When Nick is summoned by the Syndics after the death of Zril, the Emperor of the Universe, Nick is hailed as his replacement, while Jeef (who almost exploded because he was, after all, unrefrigerated ground beef) is one with the universe. 

I struggle with fantasy books at the best of times. While I read Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe (the book that inspired Lubar to write this series) back in 2002, it made no sense whatsoever to me. I do know many seventh grade boys, however, who are ENORMOUS fans, and deem it to be enlightening and  worth  memorizing. I am not the target audience for this book; those boys are. It is perfect for them. 

The page illustrations (I think by Adam Markum) are often very helpful (I was having trouble envisioning the Craborzi), and add a bit of levity to a rather dark space adventure. This seemed like an odd choice at first, until I remembered some of the illustrated novels that my students have written. Think of John Wilson's essay Exploding Noddy. Violence to a tween is stomping Craborzi and blowing up whole planets without thinking too much about the details. The illustrations capture Nick's youthful experience perfectly, and have that feel of being penned in the back of a math notebook during study hall that will resonate with the target demographic. 

There are many chapters in between the action that site back story, and this is a great way to stuff even more amusing nonsense into a book already brimming with odd characters and humorous highjinks. I wasn't quite sure which characters would become important and which wouldn't, which gave this book a distinct feeling of free fall. I'm a librarian. I read books to disect them (like the Craborzi!) and explain them. Middle grade readers read to be inspired and delighted, and will let the seemingly haphazard events and characters wash over them. I've seen other adult reviewers who complain that this isn't well written. It is, in fact, brilliantly written for a specific audience, who will delight in sentences like "smelled like a mixture of candy corn and budget-priced window cleaner" and in the fact that Jeef was produced from a Mennonite farm, so is "Holy Cow". 

Now that Nick's phone can pull energy from the universe, he can talk to his gerbil, and the universe isn't going to self destruct right away, he will be able to set out to end all of the pointless the pointless wars. Readers of books like Gratz's League of Seven, O'Donnell's Space Rocks, and Wilson's Me vs. the Multiverse will want to hop back on the nearest friendly spaceship and go along for the frenetic ride. 

Lubar, David. The Clone Catastrophe (Emperor of the Universe #2)
April 20, 2021 by Starscape
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

It's hard to return to regular life after being named Emperor of the Universe, especially when your parents want you to take out the trash. Nick Landrew is back, arguing with his parents about chores. Later, they come to ask him what's been wrong lately, and when he tells them the truth, they don't believe him. They don't even believe that Henrietta the gerbil can talk; they are just pleased that Nick has been taking up ventriloquism and magic. They encourage this, since they are in the entertainment field themselves. Nick does get to travel with Clave (whom he summons with an app) every evening on The Nick of Space, and is expected to meet with various peoples in the universe to try to solve their problems. Of course, he has problems of his own, snice Morglob the talent agent wants revenge, and a group called the Unilluminated also want to kill him. Back on Earth, he finds it hard to talk to Stella at school. They do go out on a date, and the more he talks to her, the easier it becomes to communicate, but when Nick's house is attacked when Stella is visiting, Clave rescues them. This means telling Stella the truth, but also fulfilling her wish to see the rings of Saturn. The Carborzi have bought one of Nick's socks that Clave has auctioned off to raise funds, and used his DNA to create an army of clones. This creates a lot of chaos, and makes it harder for Nick to implement his goal as emperor. While he's still struggling to come up with the meaning of life, he knows he wants to try to stop all wars, because "A bit of violence can ruin a whole lot of beauty". When Stella reveals secrets about herself, will this help or hurt Nick's reign as Emperor of the Universe? 

This second installment is slightly less goofy than the first, although there are certainly enough humorous occurrences to delight readers who enjoy them. Jeef's interstitial ruminations (see what I did there?) add some backstory as well as philosophy. Since gatekeepers of middle grade literature LOVE books with life lessons, it's truly inspired that Lubar has Nick questioning his place in the universe, and gives another nod to the inspiration behind this series, Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This book, however, gives a very direct answer to the meaning of life, and it's one that's hard to argue with. "We are meant to use our gifts in good ways, and to help others use theirs." That's certainly the answer that I would have given, although perhaps not as eloquently. 

I did miss the illustrations from the first book. There are very few in this one. 

Including Stella as not only a romantic interest but as a possible assassin is inspired. While a vast number of seventh grade boys are interested in girls, I'm sure that there are moments when they believe that girls will be their undoing. Will it be by poisoning their root beer before deciding NOT to kill them? Probably not, but the emotional effects are pretty much the same. 

Castle's Popular Clone and Korman's Masterminds trilogy play with the idea of cloning in similar ways, but Nick's journey is right at home with Stu Truly's pursuit of Becca in Richard's more realistic exploration of tween romance. The Clone Catastrophe brilliantly balances all the enormous problems of being the master of the universe with the even more crushing ones like talking to girls and, yes, taking out the trash. Of course, if you are the emperor of the universe, it's good to zap the DNA out of your trash so that the Craborzi don't try to clone you AGAIN. 

Lubar, David. The Emperor's Last Stand (#3)
September 5, 2023 by Starscape
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

It's not easy being the emperor of the universe, so when a space ship lands in the football field of his middle school on the last day of classes, Nick Landew isn't too surprised to find his old friend Clave. The universe has been attacked by another universe, and since Nick has vowed to protect it (as well as vowe to "take blame for anything for which there is no blame"!), he and Stella hop aboard and head off. Not only is the universe being attacked, but it has split into alternate universes, which are leaking into each other, causing all kinds of problems. As if that weren't enough, when Nick texts his parents to let him know that Clave, as well as newcomers Gavish and the celebrity cook Fleexbeezle, are coming to visit his home, he finds out alarming news. Even though his parents think his claim that he is master of the universe is a game that his friends are playing along with, they are planning an outerspace tour of their Beagles tribute band. All too late, Nick realizes that the talent agent who has contacted them is Morglob. His parents are impressed with Morglob's office and business, sign a contract, and are set to tour Jensum, where the locals tend to kill performers after concerts! Nick is still trying to fix the leaking universe so he can repel the attack, and finds that the only people who can help with the universe warp device are... the Carborzi. This is bad news, since they are still not fond of Nick, who assassinated a number of their people in the first book. Will Nick be able to save his parents, the universe, AND be able to start eighth grade without intergalactic problems hanging over his head? Since he turns the universe over to his clones, and Clave signs on to work for Fleexbeezle, it seems like he will be able to live out his destiny on Earth, now that he has found the Meaning of Life. 

This was a solid sequel to a humorous and thought provoking sequel, and it's easy enough to envision Nick having a good life on Earth, although I'm not sure where Stella will be living. They have a nice relationship, but she's still a former assassin android, and I imagine it's hard to find living arrangements under those conditions. I loved that Nick's parents were involved in the story; of course, they had to be kidnapped to motivate Nick, but they sort of signed up for it themselves because of their love of performing, which was a nice twist. 

Like Owen's Here, There Be Dragons, this made my brain hurt just a bit. I know that Jeef merged with Stella at the end of the last book, becoming Jeefella. Since they didn't like that named, they changed it to Janice. Janice narrates the explanatory chapters, but then there is still the embodiment of Stella who goes on the adventures with Nick. Fantasy and science fiction are sometimes hard for me to grasp, although even I was able to applaud the change in the Craborzi outlet. That was a fun twist! 

The addition of alternate universes takes this series in an innovative new direction and reminded me a bit of Michael Lawrence's A Crack in the Line. This led me to think about his fantastic Jiggy McCue series, which has some similar goofy moments to this one. I could see Jiggy merrily going on Nick's adventures with him. THIS connection led me to remember that Douglas Adams was a British writer, and Lubar has done a great job bringing that level of profound yet ludicrous soul searching so endemic to British comedy. While not everyone will appreciate Nick's adventures, if you grok, you grok. 

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