Review: Middleworld by J & P Voelkel

225. Middleworld (The Jaguar Stones #1) by J & P Voelkel
Publication: EgmontUSA; Revised edition (April 27, 2010), ARC Paperback, 416pp / ISBN 1606840711
Genre: MG Fantasy, Adventure, Action
Rating: Buy it (if you’re a preteen, or as a present for a preteen) / Borrow it (if you’re an adult)
Read: November 26, 2010
Source: Publisher
Summary from Amazon:

Fourteen-year-old Max Murphy is looking forward to a family vacation. But his parents, both archaeologists and Maya experts, announce a change in plan. They must leave immediately for a dig in the tiny Central American country of San Xavier. Max will go to summer camp. Max is furious. When he’s mysteriously summoned to San Xavier, he thinks they’ve had a change of heart.

Upon his arrival, Max’s wild adventure in the tropical rainforests of San Xavier begins. During his journey, he will unlock ancient secrets and meet strangers who are connected to him in ways he could never have imagined. For fate has delivered a challenge of epic proportions to this pampered teenager. Can Max rescue his parents from the Maya Underworld and save the world from the Lords of Death, who now control the power of the Jaguar Stones in their villainous hands? The scene is set for a roller-coaster ride of suspense and terror, as the good guys and the bad guys face off against a background of haunted temples, zombie armies, and even human sacrifice!

Review

I admit it: sometimes I’m a snob. I tend to judge books by their cover, by their back cover summaries, and by their blurbs. As we all probably know, those aren’t exactly the BEST ways to figure out if a book is a good match for you or not, and a couple of times I’ve been proven wrong in my initial assessment (for better or worse). The Jaguar Stones trilogy looked, upon initial inspection, to be something I would NOT enjoy. I think it was the connection with the so-called “2012 phenomenon,” the entirety of which I find repulsive and ridiculous and even sort of offensive (I’m also prejudiced against certain things, besides being snobby). But then, when I was emailed by the publisher about the second book, I took another look at the series and you know what? This time around I thought it looked like a lot of fun!

I don’t know what changed. I hope it’s that my book snobbishness is receding back into the murky depths of my soul, but maybe it’s just that I was seduced by the comparison to Indiana Jones. So maybe I’m still judging books by their outsides– whatever. The point is that the publisher very kindly agreed to send me both books one and two, and now I’m kicking myself for not reading them sooner.

The Jaguar Stones trilogy is great! I had so much fun reading this first book that I can’t wait to get started on the second, and I know that the third book will not be out soon enough for me. The first book has almost everything I like in a YA adventure book: strong characters, action, drama, chases through dangerous wilderness, a bit of magic and some really great stuff about being more tolerant and less of a jerk.

The authors

I love how it’s actually set in part of the Maya historical lands, and how it incorporates archaeology and Maya history and religion into the story. I like how the modern world meets up with the ancient world, in both magical and mundane ways. And I like how the characters get a bit of growth by the time the book ends! Especially Max, who goes from a stuck-up, spoiled teenager to something approaching an actual likable person who doesn’t care about Playstations. I really liked Lola, the female half of the save-the-world team. She was almost bordering on an action girl trope, but I think she had enough flaws to keep from falling into it entirely. I really look forward to seeing her more in the series.

The only thing I didn’t like was that sometimes the writing was a bit rough. For instance, Max spent much of the first half of the book being really intolerant towards the native peoples of San Xavier, so much so that I was actually repulsed by some of the things he said and did. Then, in the course of maybe two pages, suddenly he becomes more understanding towards their life and current situation. It literally felt like a snap between one extreme to the next, and this happened a few other times in the book as well. I know the authors were trying to illustrate how tourists saw the natives, and how the natives saw the tourists, but the switch from one viewpoint to the next wasn’t handled in the best way, I think.

There is also, I think, something a bit…uncomfortable? about how the native peoples are the ones who have to show Max that the way he’s acting towards them is uncool. I think it would have been better if Max (or his uncle, even) had been the one to come to that realization on his own– if the onus of teaching wasn’t on the PoC. It almost reminded me of all those movies where the white dude wanders into a situation he’s not familiar with, and the “noble wise man” helps fix him up, and then the white dude ultimately triumphs over everything. (Am I thinking of positive discrimination, or something else? Noble savage, maybe?) And THEN there’s this whole scene where Max is berating a Maya dude for NOT being proud of his heritage and for refusing to get sucked into what he (the Maya) thinks is just superstition. Uh, what? Hrm.

I think the authors are trying to portray a realistic situation– the tourists in the jungle being giant balls of rudeness towards the native people, for instance– and to make what’s a very difficult thing easier for kids to understand and empathize with. It’s just got a few lumps stuck in the final product.

They were trying to say that a) we should all try to understand each other better, especially when coming from different cultures, b) just because someone lives in a different style from how you live doesn’t mean they’re bad people, and c) we should be proud of our history and heritage and culture, and while me may all live in the modern world that doesn’t mean we should try to forget that stuff (like the Maya dude was doing). Good lessons to take away from an adventure book, right? But still. A little not good.

Okay, so those last few paragraphs were sort of a downer. But, despite my issues with some of the writing, I really do think that Middleworld is a fun book, one that kids everywhere would like. It’s got history, it’s got action, it’s got realistic characters (even if they do veer wildly from one emotion to the next), and it’s got a great story. Plus, despite my own dislike towards the “omg the world is going to end in 2012” thing, a lot of people ARE interested in it and want to know more about the Maya civilization and what it’s all about. So: Middleworld. Gives me conflicting emotions, but it was a good read.

And

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I have been thinking about race a lot lately; can you tell? Of course, now I’m wishing I had taken more classes that actually DEALT with race in literature. I feel slightly inadequate in doing it on my own– so please bear with me while I try to figure this stuff out.

Also I feel I should mention than in the story the authors definitely point out how it’s just the calender ending, not the actual world. The problem is when the next god takes over (each thingy has a sort of patron god attached to it, sort of like how each year has an animal attached to it in Chinese and Japanese cultures), because that god is a big ol’ meanie and will plunge the world into chaos and other horrible stuff. I have no idea how Max and Lola are gonna fix that, actually, because surely they can’t just skip over to the next god. Can they? Hm.

Other reviews: SciFi Chick | Dreaming of Books | The Discriminating Fangirl | Good Books and Good Wine | Brooke Reviews

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