Book review : Teller of twisted tales

AT the 2017 HarperCollins Big Book Bonanza held in Kuala Lumpur recently, American author Soman Chainani spoke via Skype about his latest book, Quests for Glory, which is the first of a follow-up trilogy to his best-selling children's book trilogy, The School for Good and Evil.

It was around 4am in New York where Chainani was, but he did not mind the early hour.

"We have been shooting the video campaign for this series and I have been up at four since the last two days," he said good naturedly.

Chainani (far right), who also makes short films, is co-writing the screenplay for his first novel, The School for Good and Evil, for a film by Universal Pictures.

The book is based on the trilogy of the same name which has been translated into 24 languages across six continents. The other two books in the series are A World Without Princes and The Last Ever After.

The School for Good and Evil tells the story of how, every four years, two children are kidnapped from the village of Gavaldon by an unknown force and end up as characters in various sets of mysterious books that appear in the local bookstore.

Some of the children (called the Evers in the books) are found in the School for Good while others (the Nevers) are located in the School for Evil.

Best friends Sophie and Agatha find themselves kidnapped. Sophie who is always considered an Ever is now a Never while the opposite happens to Agatha. They each try to switch schools and try to escape, but fail every time.

Sophie becomes smitten by an Ever boy named Tedros, but Tedros falls for Agatha instead. The rest of the story is about them trying to find a way home and discovering more about themselves.

On his latest book, Quests for Glory, Chainani explained that the first three books were school-based narratives.

"They were set in this school and everything was pretty much limited to this one environment. Moving forward, I thought it would be awesome to see what happens once these kids graduate."

Essentially, Quests for Glory is about the children confronting the world and maybe even get their fairytale ending.

Chainani added: "We are moving from something like Harry Potter to more like Game of Thrones.

"There is a lot more history in love and it is a much bigger world. As the characters grow up, so do their environment. It sets a new tone to the series."

Chainani said that he was inspired by fairy tales to pen The School for Good and Evil.

He explained that he grew up in a household that did not have cable but had a lot of Disney movie DVDs.

"My family was obsessed with Disney. That's my childhood, watching and re-watching Disney movies."

Growing up, Chainani never noticed the flaws to these Disney tales until he realised that real fairy tales are very different.

"There were gaps to the stories, the things that made them real were all left out.

"I wanted to bring back fairy tales as they were meant to be for the kids." These included the darkness amidst the light and the comedy.

When Chainani was studying for his English and American Literature degree at Harvard University, he wrote a thesis on Why Evil Women Make Such Great Villains.

"I never understood why Disney never used them more. Female villains are only featured in about eight movies which is very silly because they are the iconic ones," Soman said.

He pointed out that while male villains tend to rely on brute strength, iconic villainesses such as The Maleficent, Cruella De Vil and the evil queen in Snow White find other ways such as manipulation.

Chainani initially wrote The School for Good and Evil as a screenplay but then turned it into a book series when he was told it was too big for a movie.

Now that the books are such a hit, Universal Pictures is turning the first book into a film which is expected to be released in 2019.

Chainani has no idea who will be directing the movie but he admits he likes having control over his work and that is why he controls every aspect of his books right down to the marketing.

As writer, he has a general sense of where his books are heading but ends up surprised where the story sometimes takes him.

Though he interacts with fans via social media, Chainani says it's very rare that his stories reflect their vision of where the story is heading. However, sometimes he boosts up fan favourites plotwise.

As to how many books he thinks he can write for this series, Soman said: "In my head, I wanted three trilogies. The first would be in school, second one will be out there in the world, and the third would be the new class which are the kids of the original characters.

"Ideally, there will be nine but right now, I am concentrating on six. After six, I might do something else and come back to book seven, eight and nine after the movie.

"I am super excited about book four. That is the best in the series. It is the richest and has more layers than the previous novels.

"Every chapter is narrated by a different character.

"It feels (like) I got to reinvent my series and, at the same time, it has all my familiar characters."