Had trouble reviewing this one. Even the photo I initially took was unsatisfactory; I ended up doing a second photo shoot. I'm finally pleased with the review, so without any further ado…
City of the Beasts (book one of a trilogy1)
First published in: 2002
This edition: Flamingo, 2003
Genre: Children and Young adult / Fantasy / Adventure
Number of pages: 406
Cover photographs: Tom Brakefield /Corbis & George Lepp /Getty
Isabel Allende, known mostly as the author of The House of Spirits and Zorro, has entered the domain of young adult / children's literature with City of the Beasts (CotB), part one of a trilogy starring teenagers Alexander Cold and Nadia Santos.
Fifteen year-old Alex is sent away to New York to spend some time with his eccentric grandmother Kate, while Alex's mother is coping with cancer. Kate, however, doesn't intend to stay in New York. Working as a reporter for International Geographic, she decides to join an expedition to the Amazon to look for The Beast (a South-American yeti or primate of sorts)… and Alexander gets to go along for the ride.
In the promising start of City of the Beasts, Kate, Alex and the rest of the expedition members travel through the dangers and the adventures that belong to the Amazon. Imagine… adventure, deep within the heart of the jungle. Moist, pressing heat while traveling the Rio Negro by boat, surrounded by the sounds and sights of the rain forest. Imagine animals you didn't think you'd ever see with your own eyes. Imagine the feeling of being watched constantly, while you're on the look-out for a mysterious animal yourself. Imagine all that.
Then, imagine it all turning into Narnia meets Avatar/FernGully, because that's what happens. What starts off as a dark adventure in the depths of South-America becomes a none-too-subtle cross between CS Lewis's Chronicles and James Cameron's recent blockbuster.
Avatar has a clear message: leave indigenous people in peace. (The other message: make love, not war.) Greedy western companies use the military to harm the tall, blue (and occasionally fluorescent) indigenous people of Pandora: the Na'vi. A few of the Americans decide to rebel against their own, siding with the Na'vi in hopes to help save them and Pandora from being destroyed.
The message in City of the Beasts is in tune with that of Avatar: the West with its greed is evil, and The People of the Mist with their pure, nature loving ways are good. Allende is preachin' it, but I'm not buying it. She just doesn't make a good case; the People of the Mist simply are good (despite all the things they do to outsiders). Why? Because Allende says so.
What worked for Avatar was that one of the rebellious soldiers, Jake Sully, had to really struggle to get accepted by the Na'vi; his efforts made him understand them and their ways – and most of all, THEIR struggles. He was worthy to become one of them. It also made ME understand the Na'vi.
Alexander also sides with indigenous people in CotB, but his committal to the People of the Mist wasn't nearly as convincing compared to Avatar's Sully. A kid who was naive enough to have his wallet stolen in New York suddenly has the wisdom needed to understand this tribe, enough to be one of them? What the WHAT!
Oh right, because "listening with your heart" means you suddenly understand ancient tribes, spirits, nature, morality. That just doesn't cut it, chosen kid or not. Which brings me to my next point.
Alexander and Nadia have been Chosen to do Great Things. Like the children in the Chronicles of Narnia. Other examples are Harry Potter, His Dark Material: children's books starring brave, chosen children, but that are perfectly suitable reading material for adults.
Speaking as an adult reader, I couldn't enjoy CotB, because of stunts such as "listening with your heart", and stuff like this: Nadia is threatened to be killed by the indigenous people. Solution? Alex plays his flute and suddenly all is love. I'm not saying I wanted them to kill her, but come on. I never once believed Alex and Nadia were in any real danger. Not because the tribe is oh so tender-hearted, but because Allende simply didn't dare to take that step.
Narnia's kids picked up weapons and went into battle; Harry Potter lost several of the people closest to him (sympathetic people) at the hands of his enemy – these are experiences that shape heroes. CotB didn't provide its supposedly heroic characters with enough real obstacles which are necessary for them to develop. And if there are obstacles, they are solved in the most ridiculous way possible.
Let Alexander Cold come of age through actual experience and being brave out of his own strength, rather than through magic-that-comes-easy-to-him. Same goes for Nadia "conveniently speaks multiple indigenous tribal languages fluently even though she's, what, like thirteen" Santos.
After the book's adventurous, gritty start, Allende abandoned the atmosphere she had built up so well and plunged into a simple fantasy tale, complete with a happy ending which is predictable, yet unbelievable (and slightly hypocritical; money solves all) at the same time. One-dimensional caricatures for characters take over from the interesting ones; Kate, poster-lady for tough love, faded away into the background. Heck, I was interested in knowing more about Kate's unorthodox methods and Alexander's reactions to them. I would have loved to watch grandmother and grandson interact, connect, share a love of the adventure.
Finally (whether this is due to translation or not, I have no idea), some dialogue and descriptions just seemed awkward. 'Translucid' versus 'solid' birds? Yeah.
This was my first Isabel Allende book. Let me add to it that I do plan to read more of her work. City of the Beasts has shown me that Allende is a master at placing the reader in the surroundings she has chosen for her characters. The beginning of her story was just fantastic. It shapes and saves my opinion of her as a writer in general; I'm willing to see what else she has to offer.
But I'm done with this trilogy. City of the Beasts's shift from adventure to fantasy was abrupt and quite frankly unwelcome, and Allende was unjustifiably preachy throughout.
1) Book one: City of the Beasts, 2002. Book two: Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, 2004. Book three: Forest of the Pygmies, 2006.