Released: October 2002 (originally in Spanish)
Pages: 408 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Culture clash, colonization, treatment of natives, cultural values, differing perspectives, environmental protection, spiritual awareness
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 10+
Fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold is about to join his fearless grandmother on the trip of a lifetime. An International Geographic expedition is headed to the dangerous, remote wilds of South America, on a mission to document the legendary Yeti of the Amazon known as the Beast.
But there are many secrets hidden in the unexplored wilderness, as Alex and his new friend Nadia soon discover. Drawing on the strength of their spirit guides, both young people are led on a thrilling and unforgettable journey to the ultimate discovery. . .
I wanted to read City of the Beasts after Dragons in the Waters for a few reasons. For one, I’d wanted to spend this month reviewing some middle grade fiction reads that I loved as a kid because I’ve been feeling nostalgic and also a little worried about the state of middle grade fiction these days. I’ll admit, I’m not very familiar with what kids are reading these days as I’m more familiar with popular YA. I think that’s why I’m worried, by the logic of if I’m not aware of any great middle grade books right now then maybe there’s not a lot out there.
I feel like a lot of the books I read in middle school affected who I was in high school and what I hoped to do with my life at the time. I feel like kids could benefit from literature that was produced before social media was a big deal or cyberbullying was the worse thing one could imagine happening to them. Books where kids are more aware of the world outside their hometown experiences.
City of the Beasts (CotB) nicely compliments Dragons in the Waters as it features a young male protagonist (American) who visits South America and accidentally gets exposed to international crime. But CotB features much stronger pacing, world-building, and adventure that has the protagonist really learning about a culture, land, and customs so different from his own. Although, I found the book dragged on a little at parts, I rated the book 4 stars.
The book opens with Alexander Cold at home. His mother has cancer and his home life has not been ideal. When his parents come to the conclusion it is time for them to take his mother out-of-state for better treatment, Alex is sent to his grandmother who lives in New York City and is about to embark on an Amazonian adventure for International Geographic, a magazine I envision is similar to National Geographic.
While traveling along the Amazon river to find this infamous Beast that has been mysterious killing people viciously, Alex and his grandmother’s expedition find themselves feeling like they are being watched and followed. Soldiers start to disappear before being found dead. And it is only once Alex and his new friend Nadia make contact with the People of the Mist that the adventure truly begins as they learn was is at stake in further conquest of the land.
This book is really a fantastic example of how a person can be transformed by immersion in another culture. Alex undergoes tremendous character development in this story as he goes from a typical, sheltered American youth to a boy who learns how to survive in wilderness and understands social customs. I love how “magic” is interpreted in this story, especially to the natives who do not understand the foreigners’ value or their concepts such as land ownership.
This book also does a great job showing the significance of the press to protect the world’s most vulnerable. We find that there was a reason Kate and International Geographic was invited to do an exposé on the Amazon, but also that their coverage can serve to protect the People of the Mist and their Eye of the World. In that way, press works a “magic” that brings about positive change.
The main thing that surprised me in reading this book as an adult is I found the long descriptive parts meant to draw readers into the world extremely dull to read. I wasn’t here for immersive reading. I wanted to know what the heck was happening! So, obviously, that was my own hang up with the book. I don’t think it bothered me much when I was younger, although I might’ve struggle then too. I can’t remember.
I think this is an important book that kids today should read because I think even if you are not a directly descendant of Native Americans, I think that all of humanity is related in the grand scheme of life on earth and we should feel protect the innocent people who are still more primitively off the land and doing no harm to the planet. I think this book is also significant in that it could appeal to boys as much as girls.
I remember learning in my Teaching YA Literature class at ISU that boys are a demographic these days, at least in the U.S., that struggle to become passionate readers. I think this is a major problem because I strongly believe reading makes people more empathetic, compassionate, and kind, qualities we need in people for the social battles that lay ahead.
I found myself paying a lot of attention to how this book was written as I was constantly questioning why I didn’t feel as entranced by this book as I did when I was younger. In today’s review, here’s what I thought was done well and bad in City of the Beasts in list format.
- Alex/Jaguar’s character development. I think this story was so effective because as Alex was drawn deeper into the uncharted lands of the Amazon, his perspective of the People of the Mist and their ways was increasingly accepting, even while remaining aware the exact logistics behind what the native considered divine intervention. He didn’t challenge their ways, he integrated their customs into his life with measured reason.
- Painting People of the Mist so vividly and with dignity. When Allende was describing the Eye of the World, there were a lot of details I found really shocking to my western sensibilities (e.g. naked people, breast feeding animals). She was very plain and clear in her descriptions without making any value comparisons, which helped me as a reader become better comfortable with it in my own time.
- Disrupting language barrier with telling through narration instead of dialogue. Over the book Alex learns that he has come to understand the language. But without needing to make up a native language or continually address the language barriers in the book between natives and the rest of the expedition, Allende reveals what is spoken not through dialogue but through narration. It becomes a fluid and and natural.
- Humor! There’s a lot of funny scenes in this book. There’s situational humor in the anthropologist Professor Leblanc who is so ignorant and limited in survival skills despite his world-wide fame for study of different cultures. I also found Kate and Alex’s relationship hysterical because of how Kate has difficulty showing her soft and caring side to her grandson who she wants to be strong and self-sufficient. There’s also some scenes that seem like something out of Gulliver’s Travels after the People of the Mist lose their leader and are trying to figure out who will be their next one.
- Overly descriptive in details of environment. I generally have learned as a reader, and writer, that too much description doesn’t always have the effect of helping readers envision the world. At a certain point, the writer needs to allow the readers to fill in some of the blanks for themselves. But this is an incredibly subjective an opinion, as I realize some people might really need/appreciate more explicit detail to become emerged in a story.
- Occasional repetition of past from others’ perspectives jarring. There were a few instances in this book where events were repeated in summary form from another group’s perspective for dramatic effect. Again, this is subjective, but I’d rather have had this redone without the repetition that removed me from the current events and action of the story, because it did happen at times that left the current timeline at a cliff-hanger!
I hoped you enjoyed this review, regardless of whether you plan to read the book or not. If I’ve helped one person become aware, or remember this book from their own childhood, I’ll be happy. I think it’d be a great gift for both young boys and girls who might be struggling readers. While I often struggle with adventure-based books, I know these kinds of books are what can bring stories and worlds alive in less avid readers.
Have you read City of the Beasts? If so, what’d you think?!