Finally, a full, rich, riveting adventure for young readers languishing between installments of the Harry Potter opus! In City of the Beasts, her first book for young adults, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende adds a dash of her signature magical realism. The saga is centered around an epic quest for a mythical creature, but to Allende's credit the book appears plausible and convincing.
Fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold is a fairly typical adolescent, if perhaps a bit more self-aware than most: "Sometimes he was euphoric, king of the world, ready to take on a lion; other times he was as wimpy as a tadpole." The former persona is called to the fore when, forced to leave home during his mother's bout with cancer, Alexander accompanies his journalist grandmother on an expedition up the Amazon in search of a fabled humanoid "beast."Kate (as he's required to call her) is a proponent of the hard-knocks school; her brusqueness at times borders on cruelty. Nor do the other members of the party promise much in the way of support. Ludovic Leblanc is a blowhard anthropology professor. Mauro Carias is an entrepreneur quickly revealed to have nefarious plans for the virgin territory kept pristine by the predations of the beast. Fortunately, Alex finds a soulmate in young Nadia Santos, the expedition guide's preteen daughter.
The two are destined to embark on a literally cliff-hanging quest, as they come face to face with the beasts (yes, plural), as well as their own innermost fears. Their journey also teaches them to appreciate the ways of the "People of the Mist" a remote clan so finely attuned to nature that they can literally disappear into it. With flashes of humor and lush physical detail, Allende keeps her didactic agenda in check, though there are lessons aplenty to be gleaned here about respecting differences, honoring the balance of life and the need to draw on deep reserves to meet unforeseeable challenges. City of the Beasts is an exciting first entry in a new series from Allende. Watch out, J.K. Rowling!
Sandy MacDonald is a writer based in Cambridge and Nantucket, Massachusetts.