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"Nine of us came here. We look like you. We talk like you. We live among you. But we are not you. We can do things you dream of doing. We have powers you dream of having. We are stronger and faster than anything you have ever seen. We are the superheroes you worship in movies and comic books - but we are real.
"Our plan was to grow, and train, and become strong, and become one, and fight them. But they found us and started hunting us first. Now all of us are running. Spending our lives in shadows, in places where no one would look, blending in. We have lived among you without you knowing.
"But they know.
"They caught Number One in Malaysia. Number Two in England. And Number Three in Kenya. They killed them all.
"I am Number Four. I am next."
John Smith is an alien. One of the Lorien Six. He set off for Earth just as his home planet was being decimated by the Mogadorian menace, and now John and his intergalactic companions are all that's left of their once-great race. They hope to return to Lorien when the world has regenerated enough to sustain life again, but the Mogadorians aren't making the intervening time easy. They too have sent emissaries to Earth, to hunt down and wipe out the nine surviving Loric children, and the brutes are already three for three. John is Number Four - their next target - and no matter how often he and his guardian Henri move around, no matter how many new small-town schools he starts afresh in, John knows it's only a matter of time before the Mogadorians flush him out.
But the odds are changing in his favour. John is finally coming into his Legacies: powers such as light, flight and more which could make all the difference when push comes to shove. As the Mogadorians close in on their fourth victim, Henri works tirelessly to better acquaint John with his abilities that together they might have a fighting chance when the time comes to take a stand against the brutes. Even with the Legacies, though, John cannot hope to fend off the invading aliens alone...
I Am Number Four is the next Next Big Thing, no doubt about it. It's approachable, easy reading; it boasts a host of high concepts for the zeitgeist to latch onto; it's book one of a projected six-volume series; and, most importantly, the marketing muscle required to make such a lasting mark on the cultural consciousness is well and truly flexed. Which isn't to say it's perfect. It's not - not by a long shot - but it is a great deal of fun.
So who is this Pittacus Lore? The publicity would have us believe he is "a Loric Elder, from the Planet Lorien, which is three hundred million miles away. He is approximately ten thousand years old. He has been to earth hundreds of times, and he is here now." I beg to differ. In fact, Pittacus Lore represents the combined forces of Jobie Hughes and James Frey. I Am Number Four is Hughes' first published work of fiction; Frey, meanwhile, has a long and storied history. You might have heard of him, come to that: he infamously embellished details of his Oprah-championed memoir A Million Little Pieces before returning from a fate worse than obscurity. A few short years after the carefully coordinated furor that dogged his debut, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh called Frey's sophomore effort Bright Shiny Morning "the literary comeback of the decade," going so far as to assert that "James Frey is probably one of the finest and most important writers to have emerged in recent years."
On the strength of I Am Number Four, I don't know that I'd be inclined to agree with that. What we have here is a hodgepodge of oblique references to a who's-who of modern and classic genre fiction strung together by an narrative that does exactly what it says on the tin. In the aliens among us, hidden in plain sight premise, there's a little bit of V, or else Battlestar Galactica. Henri - who'll be played by Timothy Olyphant in the movie adaptation (already in the works courtesy of Transformers egomaniac Michael Bay and Disturbia director D. J. Caruso) - is a fairly transparent Sirius Black stand-in. There's a great swatch of Superman in John's origins and eventual transformation; there are comparisons to be made between I Am Number Four and Roswell, Kick-Ass, The X-Men and more. Then again, it bears repeating that Harry Potter was much the same, back before it roundly outgrew its inspiration: at least to begin with, J. K. Rowling's series was The Books of Magic with some of Diana Wynne Jones' woefully underappreciated Chrestomanci series thrown into the pot for good measure. And so it's absolutely possible that I Am Number Four will become something greater as it goes on. We've five more books to find out.
Book one isn't the best of starts, then - it's all a bit obvious, with nothing truly original to distinguish it from the competition (of which there's no short supply) - but let it be said that it's also a long way from the worst. I Am Number Four is very rarely remarkable, but it's fun, in an undemanding sort of sense, from cover to cover. The set-pieces you can expect to see explosively realised on the big screen in the summer of 2011 are engaging and adequately handled. The premise, however uninspired, comes part and parcel with a lot of potential. Bernie Kosar is a great, shit-eating grin of a character - though he's the only one as yet, and oh, he's a dog. And though a lot of the social commentary inherent in a narrative about the destruction of a world comes across as crude and superfluous, I certainly appreciate the intent.
The "adult" edition of I Am Number Four is perhaps a little optimistic, but the kids, I think, will dig this book. And they wouldn't be wrong to: the high school antics keep things entertaining in the down-time between out-of-this-world action sequences, the characters - John, Henri, Bernie and the love interest, Sarah (a reformed cheerleader) - are fine ciphers to help kick things off, easy to get to know and hopefully only stymied in developmental terms because, as I believe I've said, we've five more books to go. Which brings me neatly to the single most problematic thing about this franchise's first phase: in almost every which way, I Am Number Four feels like a prologue. By dint of its positioning as the next YA series for bookstores to launch at midnight year in and year out, it feels frustratingly tentative. It's good - at worst, it's harmless entertainment - but what comes next could well be great.