What started off as a fun adventure thriller, 21% Monster by PJ Canning turned into something beautifully inclusive, existential and empowering with its subtle commentary on the ways we are different, whether it physically, neurologically or indeed our experiences are what make us powerful not only as individuals but as a species.
Fans of Alex Rider, Young Bond, Robert Muchamore’s Robin Hood and Percy Jackson will find something to love in 21% Monster and the following series, with its blend of action, unpolished and complicated boys, humour and heart it’s a winning combination.
And not just for boys but girls too as Littlefae adores 21% Monster for the adventure and the subtle humour she thought Marek was particularly funny for his quirks and despair at getting another suit ruined, though I know she particularly wants to see Daisy again and very excited by something revealed at the end about Project Helix.
Darren Devlin has just made a HUGE mistake, he lost his temper and that has left a hole in a police van, his school in rubble, one of his bullies hanging from a lamppost by his underwear and Darren in a police interview room waiting to be taken to a high security young offenders institution.
There, a strange boy only he can see tells him a startling truth about himself- that Darren is 21% Monster like the boy Marek is 19% Alien thanks to a wicked international experiment and that Darren must go with Marek if he wants to live let alone find out who is behind this… and stop them from chasing them down.
‘You’re more amazing than any of them’Daisy to her brother Darren after he is given one last chance at school
Darren is your lovable fragile with a twist boy hero protagonist, readers will warm to his heart, morals even if he is wracked by self doubt. He’s not your proud ‘I got this’ type of boy, he’s heart and guts, acting from instinct AND what he feels to be right not simply what is easy or ‘most effective’.
He reminds me in ways of Arthur Brightstorm, albeit a physically stronger version! Arthur equally struggled to find his path against his intensely bright and intellectually capable sister, feeling incapacitated socially by others’ attitudes to his limb difference but learns he has so much more in him when he stops reframing himself in others expectations and embraces what HE can do and letting go.
Marek on the other hand is your Wise Wizard trope with a twist. The Obi-wan, Gandalf, Merlin, the great teacher who reveals truths to our hero and sets him on his path to glory- except our Wizard is on the same path and a bit broken. In Marek’s case he is presented slightly as an anti-hero as his isolated childhood with no reinforcement of ethics or morals like Darren had and the combination of high intellectual ability against poor emotional regulating means he makes impressive technology and weapons but poor choices in how to handle people. And the suits!!
He reminds me a LOT of both Number Five’s old man in a boy’s body dilemma from the Netflix adaptation of The Umbrella Academy with a big scoop of Angus Imrie’s flamboyant interpretation of Merlin in Joe Cornish’s modern day Arthurian adventure ‘The Boy Who Would be King’.
Marek helps Darren understand the situation and his powers, but instead of being shaped up to hero by wise Marek, Darren provokes Marek to reframe his decisions and refuses to back down when Marek wants to deviate from those ethics. This balance takes us away from the usual grand/fatherly role the Wizard plays and makes for a wholly more interesting adventure.
‘But your brain isn’t wired that way’Marek to Darren
As someone who was considered what used to be called ’gifted and talented’ (although that’s actually part of my now recognised neurodiversity) and with a brother who would have been what used to be ‘special needs’ list- this book was pretty powerful and emotional at times to read.
Neurotypical people seem to think these are worlds apart that those with a precocious intelligence or abilities have a ‘leg up’ and don’t need support, and equally unless they have savant ‘Rain Man’ like abilities that those on the more profound end are basically that horrible term-low functioning. It can lead to children being written off, and universally never truly reaching their potential whether that’s high academic or creative acclaim or simply feeling a valued part of society.
This book has an incredible scene for empathy in that regard, as someone who has felt like an alien ( or rather faery Changeling left behind to experience this world) it was resonant to see Marek explain about how for all his intelligence and skills he cannot comprehend music as an experience only deduce logically how it can be beautiful on a theory level- that it feels like everyone else got the instruction manual for processing and feeling music but him.
This will be a point of reflection for children who feel like Patrick Dempsey in Enchanted in that scene where everyone in Central Park starts singing along with Giselle- ‘I don’t even know this song!?! Do you know these people? How do you know the words- Is this song popular?’ Sometimes it can feel like everyone got the sheet music, stage directions and choreography, and further practice sessions before birth for how to act, how to interpret faces, even just being in social situations except us and we are humming, miming and waving about trying to not make it obvious we are making it up as we go.
Equally Darren’s painful admission to Marek about his illiteracy and how nothing seems to work will also resonate with children who have processing conditions like language communication difficulties, dyslexia, dyspraxia and so forth- that you can wave all the colour filters and coping mechanisms you want but if brain says no it’s not happening, even more so under stress and shame.
There’s a gentle recognition of this being just the way Marek and Darren are- their brains are wired differently from others. By presenting these issues as part of their altered DNA whilst some adults may not like that (especially those whom alien/freak/beast etc would have been an insult they heard daily not a banner to forge forward), for every now adult who wished for their Hogwarts letter or similar, the fantasy of a magical reason for us being different or not fitting in is a universal yearning whether neurodiverse or neurotypical.
I know I found comfort in my ‘Changeling’ fantasy I mean, I knew it wasn’t true but universally the idea of a wondrous reason for our differences can sometimes be the spark that makes a wonder of how we present and use our differences- we just need to believe in them and be empowered by our differences rather than letting others’ perception of them drag us down.
Darren shook his head. “But that would mean I really am a freak!’
Marek smiled ” I ‘d prefer you didn’t use that particular word. That word is for fools who don’t understand the power of being different. Who don’t realise that if all the people were as similar as they would like them to be, the human race would have died out just like the dodo.’Darren is aghast upon realising he is the result of a clandestine experiment on the general population to adjust their DNA with that of non-human species.
The fact that these seemingly opposite pair can forge a friendship and be heroes gives this book a beautiful underpinning. Like Darren can isolate a particular sound and follow it, or always find North, children who need to see heroes like them will read between the lines and find them.
They will see children with struggles like them having adventures and most beautifully, they will see readers NOT like them enjoying the same book and perhaps empathising with Darren and Marek and maybe start to unpick their framing too. This is profoundly powerful especially for young boys in this world where there is still Intolerance to male difference , there will be many Darren’s and Marek’s just aching for an Alex to read this and it make them think.
Please check out the Other stops on the tour!!
21% Monster by PJ Cannon is published by Usborne
Thank you for my copy 💜