Wednesday, 11 August 2010
Review: Return To The Lost World by Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore
Someone is trying to kill Luke Challenger. His mother has discovered dinosaurs surviving deep in the Brazilian jungle, and now she and Luke are in mortal danger from a mysterious cult called the Sons of Destiny. Why is the cult hell-bent on destroying them?
When I was a child I watched a fair amount of TV. I have never felt that I watched too much (we did only have three channels after all - I remember the excitement I felt when the fourth was launched), as I also read a great deal and did all the other things that active young boys enjoyed in the days before PS3s, X-Boxes and so on. Looking back, I think BBC2 must have been the channel I watched the most, for it was this channel that introduced me to the old black and white Republic serials and many, many films that I still hold dear today. Films such as Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes series, the Ealing comedies, and a string of classic monster movies including It Came From Beneath The Sea, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and The Valley of Gwangi. From these cinematic classics was born in me a love of adventure stories, both written and on the big screen, and this love remains today.
The classic adventure stories that I read then, and still reread occasionally when time permits, were books such as Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and Journey To The Centre of the Earth; H. Rider Haggard's She and King Solomon's Mines; Stevenson's Treasure Island; and Sir Arthus Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Of all of these two still make an appearance in my list of all time favourites: the first is Treasure Island (although I acknowledge that the style of prose makes it a challenge for many young readers today) and the second is Conan Doyle's adventure masterpiece, and all of all of these I think that this is the book that is still most accessible to young readers today. Verne's underwater epic is a fantastic story, but unless you read the abridged version there is far too much padding and tedious descriptions of underwater flora and fauna for it to have huge appeal these days. The Lost World, on the other hand, has none of this padding. Simply put, it contains everything a young reader wanting to try a classic story could ask for: action, adventure, danger, and dinosaurs!
It was then with a confused mix of excitement and worry that I recently contacted Usborne and asked them if I could have a review copy of a book I had seen mentioned online. This book was called Return To The Lost World, and the scant details I could find mentioned that it was about a boy called Luke Challenger, grandson of hero of Conan Doyle's original story and set 23 years later, in 1933. My first thought was "Fantastic! An action adventure story set in that exciting pre-war period, based on an original work that I loved", but a fraction of a moment later I thought "What if it is rubbish? Will it taint my feelings for the original?". I was encouraged a little by the fact that the authors are well known names to me - Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore have been writing together for this age group for many years.
With hindsight I am now wondering what on earth I was worrying about - I really enjoyed this book; it is a superb reworking of Conan Doyle's original story, combined with the non-stop action that modern readers adore. The two Steves have taken the premise set up by the original story and used it to create a fast-paced adventure story, which feels both retro and modern at the same time. It feels retro in that it is (unfashionably?) set in an era that is not often used in kids adventure stories these days (and yet proved so apt for my all time favourite film, Raiders of the Lost Ark); it is all also a good old-fashioned adventure story, without gadgets, mobile phones, the internet, etc. Yet it feels modern as it is written to appeal to children of today, and therefore has a very fast pace, and many a set-piece action scene. It this respect is almost cinematic and I would loveto see this on the big screen.
Return to the Lost World introduces us to Luke Challenger and his friend Nick Malone. As I have already mentioned, Luke's grandfather was the George Challenger of the original story but the links do not end there. Luke's godfather is Lord John Roxton and Nick Malone's father is Edward Malone, both of whom were also part of the original team that ventured to that amazing place deep within the Brazilian jungle. Luke has inherited his grandfather's adventurous streak, and both boys feel stifled in the posh boarding school they have to attend.
Model pupils they are not, and at the start of the book we find them having managed to bluff their way across Europe and into an international glider competition in Austria, a competition they hope to win with a glider of their own design. Luke's father heads up Challenger Industries, and the family live within the grounds of the company's research divisiion, so Luke and Nick managed to build their glider by 'salvaging' materials and forging requisition slips. Of course, as a result of an incident that I will not spoil for you the boys are found out and soon find themselves been lectured to by Luke's father. However, the actions of the boys are not his only concern, for Luke's mother (who is one of the world's foremost palaeontologists) has gone missing and it would appear that she has taken herself off to Brazil in order to see the Lost World for herself. Thanks to his grandfather Luke is now one of the few people alive who knows the location of the infamous plateau and after a great deal of pressure on their father the boys soon find themselves embarking on their own journey to South America. And this is when the action really begins for there seems to be another intrested party, a mysterious group whose members all seem to carry a distinctive tattoo - a snake entwined around a spear.
So, in the melting pot we have: a mysterious secret society hell bent on taking over the world; a 'lost world' inhabited by dinosuars, on a plateau set deep within the Brazilian jungle; transatlantic travel the old fashioned way in flying boats that have to stop to refuel several times during their journey; two boys who have an almost unquenchable thirst for adventure; and the ultimate quest - to rescue mum from the bad giys. What more could an adventure loving boy want from a modern adventure story?
The characters in Return to the Lost World are great. Some critics may question their lack of realism but this is the sort of book where characters are supposed to be larger than life and suspension of disbelief a pre-requisite, and in many ways this is far more believeable a premise than that set up in Muchamore's CHERUB series or the Alex Rider books. Teenage boys working for the Secret Service? You're having a laugh! This book is a very good introduction to the characters of Luke Challenger and Nick Malone, but as the first book in what I have been reliably informed is intended to be a series there are obviously a few shortcomings as far as character development are concerned. Do I care? Not one little bit as the story more than makes up for this, with its fast pace and the many twists and turns that leave us wondering just who the boys can and cannot trust.
I do have one small moan though. Much as I loved the action-packed incidents that Luke and Nick experience during their journey to the plateau, I personally would have liked them to have spent more time in the 'lost world' itself. The proof copy I was sent has 312 pages, and it is just as we are entering the final third of the book that the boys finally make it to the plateau. This is such an exciting place that I feel that it would have benefitted from a few more chapters to give it justice and the climatic fight scene in the 'lost world' seemed a little too rushed for my liking.
I mentioned just now that this is supposed to be the first in a series, yet we are not left with a huge cliffhanger ending. Everything is brought to a satisfying end, although we are left with that lingering appetite for more. What will the Sons of Destiny try next in their quest for ultimate power? Will they seek revenge on Luke and Nick for their part in foiling their plans? I for one cannot wait to read more, especially as I have 'heard' that the two Steves intend to bring elements of other classic stories into the Luke Challenger series, including both Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and King Solomon's Mines. With any luck not only will these new books entertain boy readers of today, but will also encourage them to hunt out and read the original stories on which they are based.
Return to the Lost World is due to be published on 27th August but a quick look at Amazon shows that they already have copies on sale so expect to see it in stores fairly soon.