A couple of years ago, I read Steve LeBel’s The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Putty, an engaging and wholly original tale about a school where young gods are trained in the art of universe building. It wasn’t enough for Bernie and the Putty to be about a kid struggling in school; it also managed to chart the development of universes, get into the complexities of evolution, and add in development of not only Bernie’s world, but also the world(s) being created by the students. It was something wholly original and unique, and to put it simply, I loved it. (You can read my review of the original here if you’re interested.)
So, with the release of a new Universe Builders book, I was naturally excited. I loved this world, and loved LeBel’s ambition and originality. And despite the fact that I knew this was a bit more of a prequel than a sequel, I was just eager to have more of this to read.
So, here’s the good: it’s still just as funny, character-driven, and engaging as the first book. Once again, LeBel shows a gift for making his characters drive the tale, rather than focusing too much on the plotting; indeed, although the story here is simple – a young girl god goes missing, and Bernie goes looking for her in the woods outside of the town. It’s a simpler story than the first novel (which befits its novella length), and rather than alternating between the “real” world and the artificial ones being created, it finds its novelty through exploring the wilderness outside of the God’s city. More than that, it touches on some odd details about that wilderness – most notably, the way that it’s become a sort of “dumping ground” for creations that never went anywhere.
The downside of Bernie and the Lost Girl, though, is the fact that it never really makes use of its central conceit – that of gods training and practicing their universes – and instead, ends up feeling a little more generic than you’d hope for. That’s a letdown, and even though Bernie and the Lost Girl is an engaging, fun little adventure story, it doesn’t pack in the imagination and creativity that made Bernie and the Putty such a great read. Indeed, it almost feels like it’s taking a great environment and squandering it, instead telling a story that could almost be set anywhere.
That’s not really the end of the world, mind you; I still really enjoyed Bernie and the Lost Girl, and it shows off a lot of what LeBel does well – create interesting and sympathetic characters, flesh out his worlds, and propel his plot along. It just feels like a bit of a step back in scope and imagination, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by that. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun read, and if you’re a fan of Bernie, it’s fun to see him develop along as a person, to say nothing of the glimpses of the larger world around him. But here’s hoping that the next entry starts to tap back into those ideas that made the first book so memorable and unique.