This was . . . a difficult book for me to get through, to say the least. I've heard good things about Gary D. Schmidt, and this happened to be the first book I came across in the library. I wish I'd chosen one of his other books instead!
The chapters set on the other world--and the book opens with one of them--are incredibly bothersome and overwhelming. I'm bombarded with names and events that mean nothing to me without proper backstory or explaining. Or even drama to establish these characters. Things were just named as if they held any meaning: "Verlim the Destroyer" and "Ouslim the Liar," as if they should be famous to me. They were there to add flair, but there was nothing substantial to add flair to, so it felt like glitter was just thrown and suspending in air. I ended up skimming these chapters.
The plot doesn't bring anything new. The male protagonist gets picked out of everyone in the world to be someone special. In this case, a chain from another planet fell into his lunchbox and granted Tommy some pretty amazing powers. But I absolutely hated how they also made Tommy seem so entitled at times--fixing the painting in his principal's office, for instance. I feel sick that this scene was written in a way that excused his actions. Basically, Tommy sees his principal's unfinished painting, decides that it's just not correct, and then takes it upon himself to fix and paint over it. This kind of thing just further encourages the kind of male entitlement society needs to drop. This painting literally took the guy two years, and Tommy takes it over, because it "wasn't right," and he could do better. The principal just ended up marveling at Tommy's work and encouraging this sick, elitist, and egotistical behavior. I mean, this is really what we want little boys to learn? Yes, I'm taking a MG book way too seriously.
As I read on, I start to get a clearer picture of this author's opinion on people that fall outside social norms. Tommy harps on Patrick Belknap for playing and liking accordions: "You know what, Belknap? Warriors do not carry accordions. They never carry accordions. They don't even like accordions." This happens near the book's end, as if it were a breaking point, as if Patrick Belknap is a character written for this moment of comic relief, because he's not James Sullivan who likes sports and always carries a football. Of course, this furthers the ridiculous stereotypes of masculinity and femininity presented in this book (football+warriors = Tommy and James Sullivan. And Alice Winslow can actually run! No way! Tommy was so surprised! But had to mention she was breathing hard. Because, I mean . . .).
This book feels like part of a fad, actually, because people seem so obsessed with super-intelligent, dick-ish male characters right now (e.g., Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor, Tony Stark, etc.). Obviously, this is just my opinion, but I feel like a protagonist like these douche bags is the last thing we need more of at the moment.
Speaking of Tommy's sudden alien superpowers, one of the most disappointing aspects of this book is that Tommy has no opinion or feelings about what is happening to him. Or that he's even aware he's any different than before! Who is Tommy Pepper? What is he like? How much of him is Tommy and how much of him is new alien powers? I just don't know.
I don't know who the villain, Lord Mondus, is either. He seems another cookie-cutter villain who rewards his loyal servants with death (is that supposed to be shocking anymore?) to prove how absolutely EVIL he is. I wasn't invested in the story at all, because it was everything I'd read a thousand times before. I know this book is MG, but that doesn't mean it can't be creative.
I was disappointed with the female characters, too. Charlene, a woman bent on taking away Tommy's home to build new developments, can be seen as a villainous character. Of course, she has makeup and nail polish, and Tommy describes all that in the most negative way. Because everyone knows women in makeup are not to be trusted. Honestly, this bit wouldn't mean anything if women didn't already get harassed for wearing a lot of makeup. But really, Charlene and her daughter (the story's bully) are meant to be read as villainous, and one wears a ton of makeup and the other is larger. It's hard not to see the sexism (and bonus fat-shaming) in this. In contrast, Alice Winslow is society's ideal girl: quiet, supportive, maternal, and caring. She is nothing but what I'm sure is the "token female character." She did nothing and added nothing to the story. Her character is basically in the book to say "Oh my goodness" every so often.
HOWEVER, the setting is wonderful! I especially love Tommy's house, which is described and imagined with such great care. It reminds me of something out of a Ghibli movie. The entire family dynamic, in particular, was the book's strongest aspect for me. It was made up of such lovely and interesting people that made it work (especially with habits like watching the dawn together with hot chocolate). That felt warm and real and wonderful.
Something that really stuck out: in the last quarter of the book, Tommy manipulates Cheryl by using his chain. He puts the chain in her hand, hand she will suddenly do whatever he wants her to do. This is oddly convenient. Did he know of this before? It wasn't ever explained. If so, why didn't he use this power earlier? It would have solved SO many of his (and the plot's) problems. If not, how in the world did that idea come to him? Again, it was never explained.
Anyway, this book really didn't do it for me.