As you’ve probably noticed before me because of the title of this review, this is part two in a three-part series. I only discovered that when I was about halfway through the book, so don’t let that stop you from reading this review or the book itself! Although, I admit that it would make more sense to start with the first one now you know it’s a series. I’ve only read this one so far and could understand everything that happened. Isabel Allende cleverly explains the important parts that happen in the first book throughout this one, such as Nadia’s background, necessary to understand the things happening in the second part. This only made me more curious to the first part though. The second part is a new adventure with some characters from the first book, and some new ones.
This series is written by Isabell Allende as three young adult novels. Each book in the series is a stand-alone adventure story, which is set in a different remote part of the earth. The fact that it is YA, does not mean she does not talk about the serious topics as usually present in her books, such as corruption, dictatorial politics, justice and the position of women. Each book in the series centres on Alexander, also called Jaguar, Nadia, also called Eagle and Alexander’s grandmother Kate Cold. Kate Cold works for International Geographic, which I assume is Allende’s version of ‘National Geographic’, for which she is sent to remote places in the world. In the first book it is the Amazonian jungle, in the third the plains of Kenia, and in this one, the second, it is the ‘forbidden kingdom’ somewhere high up in the Himalayas. The forbidden country is a Buddhist kingdom, closed-off to most visitors because the authorities want to keep the purity of the nature and the people’s minds intact. I have to say here that I don’t know how close to Buddhism the practises in this book actually are, because I know too little of it to say. Kate and her crew of photographers, together with Alexander and Nadia, are allowed in the kingdom to make a reportage. This trip of Kate and her family is one part of the story.
The second part of the story is about somebody called the ‘Collectionneur’ who, as his name suggests, collects valuable artefacts from all over the world. Also, he has the wish to become the richest person in the world, because now he is only the second-to richest and he does not deal with that well. He has heard rumours about a golden dragon statue used in the forbidden kingdom to predict the future. Naturally he wants that statue. To do that he hires somebody called ‘The Specialist’ to steal the statue and the code needed to predict the future. He hopes that the statue will help him to get even richer. The specialist is the kind of villain often present in adventure and spy novels. The Specialist is smart, cunning and ruthless. Basically, if you pay The Specialist’s exorbitantly high price, the job will get done, no questions asked.
The characters are what makes this book very good in my opinion, especially the women. There is Kate, the weathered international geographic writer with a great love for her grandson and her special vodka tea. There is Nadia from the Amazonian jungle who has an eagle as spiritual animal, which is also why she is sometimes called ‘Eagle’ in the book, but has actually a great fear of heights. This however does not stop her from being extraordinary brave. Finally, there is Pema, who lives in the capital of the forbidden kingdom, and turns out to be maybe the bravest of all people in the book. Isabel Allende is always most successful in writing strong female characters, who go their own way in life, not always impressed by the men who love them. This makes a nice change from a lot of the other YA books, where loving a boy seems to be the biggest occupation of females present. Here is one example from the book which makes this difference very clear. Nadia and Alexander are discussing doing something very dangerous. At a certain point Alexander ‘allows’ Nadia to go along with him, but he tells her to do whatever he tells her to. Her reply to that is that she won’t do everything he says, but will do whatever she thinks is best. Also she tells Alexander that the situation is just as dangerous for him, as it is for her, so she might as well join him, ‘so deal with it,’ I imagined her ending her statement with.
I don’t think the forbidden kingdom is one hundred percent based on a real country, but it does have a lot of similarities with Bhutan, which is also a mountain kingdom in the Himalaya. In Bhutan they also adhere to Buddhism, and Bhutan is sometimes referred to as the ‘forbidden kingdom’, because it is pretty closed off from modern society. I do not know enough about Bhutan and its political system to see how similar it is to the one in the book, but they are both monarchies. For me it is always interesting to see how writers use something we have on this earth, and shape it into something they can use in their stories. It’s the same with the way Isabel weaves spirituality into this adventure story. Supernatural things are happening in this book, but in such a way that they are part of the story from the start, and not as a way to solve a big unsurmountable problem at the end as a ‘deus ex machina’. It does take some suspension of disbelief to go along with the spiritual solution of problems, but once you do it makes this book a wonderful journey through the power of the mind, and the believe that there is actually magic in this world. Also inclusion of those spiritual elements gives the reader some nice ideas to ponder, while enjoying the adventure part of the story.
In conclusion, this book is a bit different from Isabel Allende’s other works, because it is aimed at young adults. However, it shares many elements prominent in her other works, such as interesting female characters, a strong moralistic component and it is written in her compelling writing style that basically sucks you in and won’t let you go until you’ve finished the book. Because this is an adventure novel written by Isabel Allende, it is ideal for girls who love spy novels, secret society books, and all other books where the protagonist gets to do awesome things, the best thing being that the protagonist is often a women. And of course this book is also for the guys who need to be introduced into the beautiful world of Isabell Allende.
Indiana Jane award for showing that adventure books are not only a boys’ game
Isabel Allende, El reino del dragón de oro (New York, 2003)
Bella G. Bear