In McAleese (Where Shadows Play, 2017, etc.) and Kristoph’s (Bathed in Light, 2016, etc.) middle-grade adventure tale, readers choose their own paths in a search for a legendary city beneath the sands.
As in the well-known Choose Your Own Adventure series, the authors’ open, second-person story format gives readers choices regarding the direction of the story, every few pages. The reader is cast as entrepreneur Donovan Young, hoping to discover the fabled desert city of Atraharsis, home to three priceless star jewels. The discovery of that city was an unfulfilled dream of Donovan’s late grand-uncle, who bequeathed him Robert Murdoch’s diary. Murdoch reputedly located the city and left behind clues, primarily in the form of riddles, as well as a map. Out in the sand, though, Donovan runs out of funds and his crew abandons him. Fortunately, he meets Waif, an ousted member of an opposing dig team led by a man named Sullivan. Reaching the city is merely the start for the duo, who go on to face myriad tough decisions. These include whether to take a stand against jackals or something much worse, or whether to go right or left on a path when either way could mean getting lost forever. In order to secure the star jewels and get out of Atraharsis alive (and hopefully unscathed), they’ll have to to pay strict attention, and solving riddles and recalling items along the way often points them in the right direction. A wrong choice, meanwhile, means going home empty-handed—or not going home at all.
In some respects, McAleese and Kristoph’s delightful novel is a game, akin to Dungeons & Dragons. Some of the choices are purely luck, based on a flip of a coin or roll of the dice (and the book’s preface recommends keeping these both at hand). The book’s educational value is without question: the solutions to the riddles aren’t immediately given, but left for readers to figure out for themselves. Staying morally upright is always the best option, as greedy or selfish choices don’t end well. Most of the decision points offer two choices, but sometimes more—and in at least one instance, a mind-boggling six. The authors wisely offer a basic, uncomplicated plot that features few other characters beyond “you” and your partner, Waif. But despite these characters’ typically frenzied state—understandable, especially considering some instances of rickety architecture—the authors leave room for humor, as when Donovan repeatedly corrects Waif about his grand-uncle. There’s also plenty of mood-setting prose: “a hollow boom echoes from somewhere deep below. The door grinds open. Centuries of dust and dirt fall away, revealing more darkness.” Some endings leave Donovan and Waif in precarious spots, severely injured and disappointed, while others leave them considerably richer. However, as the series’ name implies, there’s only one ending that earns the reader the title of Adventurer Extraordinaire. Giving so much control to the reader makes each adventure feel truly personal.
A brief book packed with charm and hours of potential enjoyment.