TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I absolutely LOVE James Rollins' Sigma Force novels for adults. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Mr. Rollins at Book Expo a few years back, when he signed "Black Order" for me, so I can also happily report that he's just as delightful in person. Needless to say, when I found out James Rollins was writing a middle grade adventure novel, I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. So, thank you HarperCollins for the ARC of this fantastic novel, which the rest of the world won't get to read until late April.
"Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow" is a good, old-fashioned swashbuckler. I mean that as the highest compliment, as this novel, with its seamless blend of history, action, and adventure, reads like an Indiana Jones for middle schoolers. The book is so chock full of cool puzzles, visual clues and glyphs, and mysterious snippets of secret language, that it almost feels like overkill to mention that it also includes alchemy, ancient cultures, and, hello, dinosaurs (!).
As the story begins, thirteen year-old budding archaeologist Jake Ransom and his cheerleader sister Kady are somehow transported back (or across?) time. One moment, they're in the British Museum, looking at artifacts from their now deceased parents' Mayan expedition, and the next, they're running for their lives from a dinosaur, accompanied by an ancient Mayan girl (Marika) and some sort of Roman teen soldier (Pindor). I know, cool. It gets better. Jake and Kady actually used two halves of a coin and, perhaps, the power of a small golden pyramid and a solar eclipse, to open a portal to Calypsos, the lost world that's an amalgam of cultures, peoples, and time periods. In a valley protected by powerful crystals, Mayans, Romans, Native Americans, Vikings, and even Neanderthals live harmoniously, mixing and mashing their cultures together. Calypsos is ruled by a council of elders and three Magisters, including Marika's father, who conduct experiments using crystals and sunbeams. Meanwhile, Kalverum Rex (the Skull King), a Magister who lost himself to dark alchemy, hovers on the outskirts of the settlement, creating horrible monsters and using all his evil tricks to break through the crystals' protections, attack Calypsos, and kidnap Jake and Kady.
There is such a bevy of cool stuff here that I hesitate to give away any more details; half the fun is deciphering the clues and unraveling the layered mysteries and hidden conspiracies right along with Jake. I loved how Jake was a clever, brave, ingenious young man one moment and then an impulsive, awkward but well-meaning kid the next. I'm sure middle school boys will readily identify with Jake, as he remains a real, believable character despite being thrown into all manner of outlandishly dangerous situations (you know, scorpion attacks, showdowns with evil beings … the usual). Even the secondary characters are fully realized, as the once scared Pindor gets a moment to shine while Kady uses her bratty charms to organize a Viking cheerleader squad and create a timely diversion.
"Jake Ransom" is a smart action tale that assumes — and rewards — a smart, curious audience. Fans of the "Alex Rider" and "Percy Jackson" series, or anyone who likes adventure, history, and mystery mixed together with a good bit of humor, will love this book. I can't wait for you to read it!