Book review: Gabrielle Lord’s “Conspiracy 365: January”

When you’ve had an international phenomenon like the “Harry Potter” series under your belt, what else can you do to follow it up?

For Scholastic Press, the answer was turning to an “interactive” series like “The 39 Clues”. More than just telling an engrossing adventure story, “The 39 Clues” series gave its readers tasks to do outside of the book. Readers could play online games, as well as cards that readers can collect that lead to clues.

If numbers are anything to go by, it looks like Scholastic made the right decision. Since the first book, “The Maze of Bones” was published in 2008, the series has been a critical and commercial success. It has now spawned 15 more books, and even a movie adaptation produced by Steven Spielberg.

Now Scholastic is betting on a new series in “Conspiracy 365”. Composed of 12 books published over 12 months, “Conspiracy 365” is already a bestseller in Australia, and has been adapted into a 12-part television series there.

But while it has enthralled readers in Australia, will it also be something that Filipino readers will mark their calendars for? Or will the series be something that will barely pique the Pinoy reader’s interest?

January 365

The first book in the series, “January”, begins on New Year’s Eve, when 15-year-old Callum Ormond is accosted by a sick man with a dire warning: “They killed your father. They’ll kill you. You must survive the next 365 days.” It’s a warning that Callum dismisses as ramblings from a sick man.

However, things begin to happen to Callum that may just prove the sick man wrong. What was supposed to be a safe sailing trip ends up life-threatening when it turns out that the boat has been sabotaged. Their house gets broken into, and Callum’s Uncle Rafe is beginning to act suspicious, withholding information from him.

When Callum gets abducted by a group of criminals that plan to kill him, it becomes clear that he may be involved in something that is bigger and more menacing than he can even imagine. Will Callum be able to make it out of the 365 days alive? Or will he not survive until the end of the year?

“January” certainly has all the ingredients to catch the fancy of young male readers, which  seem to be the book’s target audience. There are already thrilling action scenes less than 20 pages in, and it rarely lets up as the slim novel progresses.

The scrapes that Callum gets himself into throughout the novel are also something that will definitely excite young male readers. in less than 200 pages, Callum gets to battle with sharks, escape from criminals, and break in and steal from his villainous Uncle Rafe.

It’s also got something for the rebellious and misunderstood teen — most of the adults in the novel are either either too naive or too evil. It is the youngsters like Callum and his best friend Boges that show courage and creativity, and it’s easy to see how young readers can find this an engaging read.

 “January” isn’t short on gimmicks, either. Pages are numbered in a descending order, so readers start on page 185 and end on page one. It’s a nice touch, as the page numbers now serve a secondary purpose: a countdown towards the book’s cliffhanger ending.

However, it’s this same strong appeal to younger readers that will probably prevent “January” — and the rest of the books in the “Conspiracy 365” series — from reaching a readership beyond its expected audience.

While following Callum’s first person narration as he tries to survive the month of January can be thrilling, it doesn’t offer much when it comes to character development or emotion. The black and white world that Callum moves in in “January” may be engrossing for the tween reader, but it may not prove the same for older readers.

The conceit that there has to be a book out every month of the year has also made the plot for “January” less than satisfying for older readers. It is ironic that action scenes abound in the book but the movement of the plot isn’t as exciting. The only pressing reason to read “February” is to see if Callum has survived, and it’s easy enough to deduce that because there are several more books in the series.

All in all, “January” and the rest of the books in the series will definitely be something that tween readers will enjoy and probably anticipate month after month. However, those expecting it to achieve cross-generational success — in the same vein as “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games” — are better served by looking someplace else.

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