Author: J & P Voelkel

Publication: 2010, Egmont

Pages: 399

Overall Rating: bth_35_zps7a173504[1]                        

Rating for Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Age Category: 9-12

Brief Summary:  Max Murphy’s parents are archaeologists specializing in the ancient Maya.  Two weeks before the start of summer, they leave for an unplanned dig in the country of San Xavier, leaving Max in the care of their strange Mayan housekeeper, Zia.  A few days later, Zia hands him a plane ticket for San Xavier, telling him simply, “They tell me to buy it…They tell me you must go there.”  And with those cryptic words, Max finds himself on the way to San Xavier – a poor country in Central America.  At first he hates every minute of it – the food, the cramped bus he has to take to the city of Puerto Muerto, and his distant eccentric Uncle Ted, who runs the family banana business in Puerto Muerto.  But Uncle Ted has expanded the family business beyond bananas.  He’s a smuggler too, and he’s gotten himself mixed up with the dark and violent Count Diego de Landa, who is after the mysterious jaguar stones – five ancient Mayan relics said to have mystical powers.   Max sees two howler monkeys steal one of the jaguar stones from Uncle Ted.  He goes after them, and all too soon finds himself lost in the jungle.  There he meets up with the crazy and adventurous Lola, and together they most work to keep the jaguar stones from de Landa and rescue Max’s parents from the Mayan underworld.  If they fail, an army of the undead will descend upon the world.

Age of Main Character: 15

What I Liked the Most: The Voelkels really toss you into the cities and jungles of Central America.  Whether it’s the poverty-stricken streets of the capital, the tiny jungle village of Utsal, or the steps of an ancient Maya ruin, the pages felt seeped in authentic Mayan and Central American culture.  That should come as no surprise, given that Jon Voelkel grew up in Peru, Costa Rica, and Columbia.  The scenery jumps off the page, making the country of San Xavier, and the Mayan village of Utsal into characters in their own right.

I don’t want to give too much away, but eventually the ancient Mayan king, Lord Six Dog, and his mother are brought back to life and inhabit the bodies of two howler monkeys.  The scenes involving Six Dog’s mother were a lot of fun as she revels in her new body and her freedom from the tight social strictures of Mayan royalty – farting, throwing fruit, and providing some great comic relief.

What I Liked the Least: One of the basic story arcs here is that Max starts out as a spoiled, lazy brat and over the course of the story learns how to care for others and put their needs ahead of his own.   It provides for some genuine character growth, and by the end of the book he’s a very sympathetic character.  The problem is that they take his jerky behavior too far.  It’s almost 200 pages before he stops acting like an ass, and there were plenty of times when I found it so obnoxious I wanted to throw the book out.  In fact, if I hadn’t been reviewing it that’s exactly what I would have done.

Even though the Voelkels do an amazing job of weaving Mayan culture into the story, there were times when the Maya they’re depicting felt a little too perfect.  They’ve given the ancient Maya incredible magic powers.  The Mayan gods are real, and through the jaguar stones the Maya had complete control over their landscape and weather.  They could cause rain and literally move mountains with the touch of a finger.  They could even raise armies of the dead.  All that’s fine in pure fantasy, but Middleworld is a fantasy based on real history.  And while I was reading it there were plenty of times when I found myself thinking, that’s a bit much.  If the Maya had really been able to do all that they would have ruled the world.   That’s the kind of thing I almost never think when reading fantasy or science fiction, but in this case I couldn’t help it.

How Good was the Action?  It’s pretty decent.  There’s a great raft ride through an underground river with rapids and a whirlpool, and an equally good scene where Max has to outrun a yacht in little dingy, dodging bullets the whole time.  The Voelkels do a good job of bringing tension into the scenes and balancing the action with Max’s emotional state.  There’s not much in the way of fights – it’s not that kind of action – but the chases and escapes are well done.  Unfortunately, the climactic fight at the end was a bit of a disappointment.  It was over too fast, and Max and Lola weren’t the ones to save the day.  They had to get saved by an adult who happens on the scene in the nick of time.

How Engaging was the Story?   It varied.  I had a lot of trouble getting into the first half of the story, mainly because Max’s character was so obnoxious I kept tuning him out and wondering if I should give up and stop reading.  But once Max learns what’s what and begins transforming himself into a better person, the book got more interesting.  I liked the relationship between Max and the tough, adventurous Lola.  They play off each other very well – especially once Max grows up enough that Lola can stop getting exasperated with him and see him as a real person.

Overall Assessment: Middleworld is a fun mix of fantasy and history with some great scenery.  It’s full of ancient Mayan temples, gods and demons, smugglers, human sacrifice, and jungle survival.  If weren’t for the fact that the main character is an over-the-top jerk for the first half of the book, I’d be happy to give it a hearty four stars and urge you check it out.  Consider yourself forewarned.

Profanity: None

Sex: None

Violence: Very little.  There is almost no blood

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