Goodreads: The Door to Time
Eleven-year-old twins Julia and Jason have just moved with their parents into the old Argo Mansion, situated on an isolated cove. There they discover the house is full of old treasures and that its previous inhabitant Ulysses Moore may have left a series of clues leading them to a grand adventure.
The book presents itself as the files of Ulysses Moore and only if you read the copyright material do you discover Pierdomenico Baccalario as the actual author. This presentation, coupled with the narrative structure of the book, initially had me convinced that Scholastic had hired a series of ghostwriters to churn out quick time travel series to make money.
The premise of the book is nothing new. Twins Julia and Jason move to a house full of antiques and secret passages. A local boy, Rick, becomes their friend and volunteers to show them around and help them explore the old mansion. Rick then starts crushing on Julia. All of this is very standard. (Indeed, I could not help but think of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Prince of Mists.) Then, of course, they begin a treasure hunt as it seems previous owner of the house Ulysses Moore has left a trail of coded messages for them. And there’s a standard villain who wants to stop them.
The cover material suggests that this series is clever and engaging and will have readers solving puzzles. But the readers themselves are seldom offered any puzzles to solve; this is mostly done by the characters and the story does not really feel interactive. Besides, the characters solve every puzzle with astonishing ease. It’s all very much as if the author just wants to hurry up this preliminary junk already and get to the time travel stuff. Seriously, if the characters are stuck for more than ten minutes on a clue they start sniping at each other and dramatically declaring they want to give up. Fortunately for them, I suppose, none of the puzzles are difficult or, if they are, a magic clue ends up in their hands or someone among them randomly possesses the specialized knowledge to solve the problem.
Normally a book like this would help draw out the drama by adding in bits of everyday life. Perhaps the treasure seeking must stop for bedtime or a family trip to town. Maybe someone is going to have a friend over or will go on a date. But no outside characterization happens here; everything revolves, uninterrupted, around the puzzle-solving. This means that we mostly see the characters in context of their ability to solve puzzles and do not otherwise learn much about them.
What we do see of them is a little awkward. Jason is established as a dreamer who very often has flashes of convenient insight that allow him to solve a problem without any work. Rick is…well, the author tells us he’s a natural leader, so I guess it must be true. We certainly do not see enough of him in action to judge for ourselves. Julia is somewhat problematic. I think she’s supposed to be relatable as a girl because she’s into the city and friends and she does stuff like sunbathe while the boys explore. But every time you think she’s falling into a female stereotype, the author goes, “Just kidding! She’s sunbathing but only for a short time because she can’t sit still! She’s full of action! She’s athletic! She does stuff!” But also, she’s a girl. And she’s going to whine like a girl and do other stuff that apparently females do. It’s as if the author is not entirely sure how to write a female character. And it doesn’t help that the only other female characters are 1) the overly protective mother stereotype, 2) the female villain stereotype, and 3) a shop owner who would be interesting if she only had a larger role.
This story simply is not original enough to make me want to read twelve more books in the series and the characters aren’t compelling enough, either. I suppose it must have sold well or there would be no point in publishing twelve more installments. The series, however, simply is not for me.