Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Armed with Smarts, a Necklace, Some Tae Kwan Do, and a Sister

If, upon reading the prologue of Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow, a new fantasy adventure from James Rollins, which follows Dr. Henry Bethel, Oxford University archaeologist, as he is being pursued through a jungle by grave robbers after the package he holds tightly to his chest (the package contains clues to a dark secret and priceless treasures) you were to think "Haven't I seen this movie? A few times?" you would be forgiven. And, if, when, the Dr., sinking into quicksand, relinquishes the package to the bad guy who thanks him with the diabolical line "Thank you Dr. Bethel. You've proven most resourceful," you were to audibly groan, no one would hold it against you.

Still, the book ultimately is not about Dr. Bethel, but about Jake Ransom, the son of two of Dr. Bethel's lost colleagues, Richard and Penelope Ransom. Jake is a somewhat nerdy and brilliant high school student, obsessed with the circumstances of his parents' disappearance. He studies archaeology and, more specifically Mayan culture, incessantly hoping to uncover clues to their fate. He trains in Tae Kwan Do in order to be prepared for some future dangerous expedition. His sister, Kady, reacts in diametric opposition to Jake, throwing herself into cheerleading and high school popularity in order to bury the pain of missing her mom and dad. In their parents' honor, they each wear Mayan amulets on their necks from a mysterious package sent to them after Richard and Penelope vanished.

When Jake and Kady are invited to a museum opening of a show (sponsored by an Evil Corporation) of the Mayan artifacts discovered by Richard and Penelope Ransom, their adventure begins. They are thrown into an alternative world, populated with humans from various periods and places in history as well as with dinosaurs and other prehistoric and fantastic creatures. This strange world is somehow connected to the corporation which originally sponsored the Ransom parents expedition and has sponsored the show which lured the younger Ransoms to the museum.

Jake and the Skull King's Shadow is plagued by a tendency toward cliché. The first thing that happens to Jake and Kady in the alternative world? They are attacked by--what else?--a T. Rex. (With so many newly discovered dinosaurs each year, many of them immensely cool and ferocious, one is forced to cry out with arms thrust heavenward, "WHY? WHY?") When, later in the tale, a traitor is revealed, the scene reads suspiciously like the mask-removing wrap-up from a Scooby Doo episode. "Why it’s you! How can this be? The character we would have least suspected!" This is followed by paragraphs of dialog, justifying the "surprise" in a spray of as-yet-unrevealed exposition.

In an afterward, Rollins explains that the references to Mayan technologies are based on factual archaeological research, and the dinosaurs he mentioned are all actual creatures form the fossil record. I can’t argue with the Mayan research, but I do take issue with some of Rollins’ paleontology. For one, he uses the term brontosaurus to describe a massive long necked dinosaur, but the designation “brontosaurus” hasn’t been recognized by paleontology for more than twenty years and the brontosaurus should be properly called an Apatosaurus. The book also makes the claim that pterosaurs lacked teeth, though in fact several species did have teeth.

Putting aside these flaws, the book's fast pacing, and collage of borrowed fantasy elements combined with archaeological fact-dropping are all expertly woven into an oddly original world, making this adventure an engaging read despite itself. Both Jake and Kady show dimension and depth, overcoming the lack of promise of their early scenes. Many of the supporting characters have real life to them as well. There are enough surprises thrown at Jake as he fights to get home with his sister that it's worth wincing through a few questionable “facts” and painfully cliché moments.

James Rollins promises more Jake Ransom titles to come.

Jake and the Skull King's Shadow is a Cybil Award Nominee.

Cross-posted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp.

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