It's an odd little bird, I'll tell you.
We can get the most of the bad out of the way quickly. My initial impression of it can be boiled down to one word: "simple." Peart and author Kevin Anderson took the basic adventure plot from Voltaire's Candide, removed nearly all of Voltaire's wit and subtlety, and substituted in some stale steampunk set dressing. Having to take the plot through the rather linear set of situations suggested by the songs was a bit plodding and ho-hum.
Other than a few exceptions, the characters were cartoonish. The evil "Anarchist" is motivated by a backstory only Lex Luthor would see as viable. His counterpart, the evil "Watchmaker," micromanages his kingdom like a mad puppeteer, determining everyone's careers and approving their marriages and living situations. That's okay on its own, but to drive the point even more to the edge of overkill, he also forces scientists to hew to a literal Ptolemaic cosmology. The deviations of the planets from perfect circular orbits is recognized as a "problem" by some, but it's a problem that all have faith in the Watchmaker to fix by (someday) moving their orbits into their proper, anal-retentive shapes!
And the "Easter Eggs." Oh, the Easter Eggs. I get that Anderson is friends with Neil Peart, and is probably a huge fan of the music. But the insertion of out-of-context song lyrics from Rush's 40-year history -- pretty much one every 3 or 4 pages -- was jarring and annoying. I'm not misusing the word literally when I say I literally turned my exasperated gaze skyward whenever I came across one of these groaners.
Okay, the worst is over. What's left?
The negative points listed above were just about all that were filling my head as I was reading the first few chapters. But then, somewhere around a third of the way in, I had a mental shift that made me far more forgiving of its flaws: I pictured reading it to my son. He's 11, and will soon be a wistful teenager looking to break away and have adventures of his own.
Actually, this book couldn't be a better guide for that.
Its simplicity can be forgiven as the allowances that (I assume) must be made in all Young Adult type fiction. In that vein, it does remind me a lot of the overall reading level of the Harry Potter books. (And by "reading level" I don't just mean vocabulary and sentence complexity, but also the themes, ideas, and challenges the main character is exposed to.) The cartoonish characters are no worse than those created by George Lucas, and they may be just as memorable for someone who doesn't know the dozens of literary originals that were plundered to create them. The Rush lyrics wouldn't be a problem -- unless a prog-geek Dad like me would be constantly pointing them out and talking about each song they come from! :-)
There's one other troubling aspect that I discussed in my review of the album. ("Spoiler alert," I suppose.) In both the lyrics and the book, we see that the main character eventually finds a happy home and leaves behind the grand battle. We learn in the book that he was a symbolic "pawn" that both the Anarchist and the Watchmaker desired to convert to their way of thinking. He said "No thanks" to both and went his panglossian way.
I know that a protagonist doesn't always need to defeat the bad guys and save the world, but I still felt the lack of righteous "comeuppance" for the villains as a pang of emptiness at the heart of this thing. They need to be checked, or their darkness will grow. The Watchmaker will always want more. If I can quote myself from my review of the album:
Okay, maybe I'm not at that point of inner peace where Neil Peart abides. I still want to see the redeemed Prince By-Tor defeat the Necromancer. I want to see the apotheosis of my namesake Cygnus, the god of balance, who teaches silly Apollo and Dionysus the errors of their extremism. I want to believe (yes, there's Fox Mulder again) that the death of the guitar-discoverer in 2112 wasn't in vain, and that the elder race of man really did return in the end to knock some Syrinxish heads.I guess I'm guilty of including Rush Easter eggs, too, but the book didn't give me the kind of closure that Neil has espoused in the past. Maybe it's the mature choice, the choice that will help guide young readers to live healthier lives full of forgiveness. But it's enough to stop me from loving this story wholeheartedly.