Lone Star Planet (A Planet for Texans) by H. Beam Piper (1958) has been skulking on my shelf for ages, and, I'm pleased to say, there's (slightly) more to it than just a goofy cover. In the far future, the entire population of Texas has picked up to go settle a frontier planet - they're keen to get away from the rules and regulations and gov'mints and such. Our hero, the plucky ambassador from the Solar League, has been tasked to woo them back. There's an alien invasion on the horizon and New Texas would be better 'in the tent pissing out'... at least, so the League think.
The book is, in a metaphorically appropriate way, divided. Half is pure aesthetic goofiness. In the year 3000+, lots of jokes about the native garb of Levis and high-heeled boots. In the future, New Texans herd supercattle and drink superbourbon. To Piper's credit, there's even a narrative aside with our protagonist chuckling at how New Texans append 'super-' to everything. There are gunfights and a faux Western pulp shtick that makes Westworld seem like pure class.
The rest, however, is surprisingly clever. Despite the space opera-cum-gunslinger set-up, Lone Star Planet is more of a political thriller, with the ultimate set not at the Super OK Corral but in a courtroom. There's a lot of - empathetic - debate to two sides of a thorny issue. Can New Texas live on its own? Should New Texas live on its own? If Piper's answers are a little more pro-libertarian than I would personally subscribe, the book still presents a lively debate.
The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani (2013) is a terrific concept. A school for fairytales, attended by the children and grandchildren of the denizens of those fairytales. They learn how to be Good and how to be Evil, and, upon graduating, go off to find their Stories and thwart their nemeses. It is The Descendents meets Harry Potter, complete with ridiculous points-based class systems, arbitrary houses, hand-wavey powers and the worst Health and Safety record in the educational universe.
Each year, two ordinary people - 'readers' - are, well, kidnapped from a small village and dropped into the School. These children - one Good, one Evil - join the class and compete with the others. Sophie, however, has been dreaming of this her entire life. The most beautiful girl in town, she's being practicing and polishing, waiting for the Storyteller to come whisk her away, and make her a Princess. When the Storyteller comes for her - she couldn't be more delighted. Her 'friend' Agatha, the town charity case and an obvious witch, is the other selection. It all makes sense... until it doesn't.
Much to Sophie's horror, she's dropped into the School of Evil, and dumpy grumpy Agatha is sent to Good. The two not only have to deal with a (rather violent) new world, and the social pressure of joining a new school, but they couldn't be worse possible misfits. Hijinks!
The School of Good and Evil works slightly better in concept than execution, and strikes an erratic tone. At times, there's a deliberate airiness to it, as the book cheerfully describes impossible things in such an off-handed way that you have no choice but to accept them. At other times, it attempts a more serious tone, attempting to remind the reader that - despite everything else they've read - this is a vry srs buk, and bad things happen - both physically and emotionally. I found the oscillation jarring: Sophie's struggle with one (spoilery) particular evil deed comes out of nowhere, and is then quickly forgotten. When one character breaks his wrist with an audible crack, it comes out of nowhere, given that most of the action features characters bouncing around like superballs. When Agatha stumbles - repeatedly - on some of the School's legitimately horrible dark secrets, these are made Very Important... and then forgotten at the next page. It is like being scolded 'all fun and games until someone loses an eye' - hilarious, goofy and over the top. And then someone actually loses an eye. That doesn't add to the goofiness: rather, it makes everything a little more sinister in hindsight.
The plot itself doesn't make a ton of sense, with the Storyteller's grand scheme a little hand-wavey. Sophie and Agatha also love/hate/love-hate one another with a wild inconsistency that may actually reflect teenagers, but really just adds to the episodic feel of the book. Fortunately, the School itself - and its ridiculous system of balls and challenges and Hunger Games style fairyland slapfights - is a major distraction, and provides more than enough entertainment to keep the reader plowing on, over, and through everything that doesn't make sense.