Monday, April 13, 2009

If Rollins and Clemens had a child...

Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow
by James Rollins

I’ve gotten a little clever with the title of my review. It refers to the fact that thriller writer James Rollins also writes fantasy novels under the name James Clemens. I think Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow really is like the perfect offspring of the Rollins and Clemens styles—some science, thrills and adventure, mixed with a generous amount of fantasy. And this IS his first novel for young adults.

Now, the book is written for kids aged ten and up. I’m a 40-year-old woman, so I’d be, you know, up. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that this book will find an audience with its intended readership, but that it will also be read by many of Rollins adult fans who are, like me, young at heart. The great thing is that there’s something for everyone. It’s a terrific book for parents and kids to read together.

The novel is told from the point of view of 13-year-old Jake Ransom. He and his older sister Kady come from a long line of archeologists and adventurers. Their parents were lost under mysterious circumstances on an expedition three years earlier, but despite this tragedy, Jake is ready to follow in their footsteps. He’s fascinated by history and science, and spends all his time engaged in some form of learning. Kady’s a little different. She’s… popular. (And great job writing some strong female characters, Mr. Rollins!)

Near the beginning of the novel, Jake and Kady receive a surprise invitation to a museum exhibit opening in London. The exhibit features Mayan artifacts recovered from the senior Ransoms’ last fateful expedition. Jake and Kady attend the opening amidst much fanfare. It’s an eventful day; the opening is timed to match exactly a full eclipse of the sun, plus there’s an electrical storm raging. Alone with an artifact, during some extraordinary atmospheric conditions, all the puzzle pieces come together and Jake and Kady are transported—inexplicably—to another world. And they’re about to be eaten by a t-rex!

Jake and Kady have come to Calypsos, and while they explore this village and its unique inhabitants, they are searching for a way home. Unfortunately, they get embroiled with a VVV—a vaguely Voldemortian villain—and are intimately caught up in an epic battle of good and evil. The book actually reminded me more of Lloyd Alexander’s beloved Chronicles of Prydain with its own epic battle than anything else (but others with a better vocabulary of YA fiction may have more apt comparisons).

Here’s the thing… This novel is the first of a promised series. It does a great job of setting up the principles, the situations, the conflicts, and so forth. And this arc of the story is complete. The one thing you should know is that none of the bigger picture questions are answered. As you finish this novel, it will leave you wanting much, much more.

I read a galley of this novel, but I can’t wait to see all the illustrations in a finished copy. It’s coming out right in time for my nephew’s birthday, and I’m very much looking forward to reading this and future Jake Ransom adventures with him.
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