Isabel Allende's past work is impressive. Her stories are captivating, poignant, human. The House of the Spirits brought her to international acclaim. Of Love and Shadows stirred her audiences. Eva Luna sank and soared our spirits. Allende tells carefully weaved narrations, about her native Chile, about the ties that bind, about family, about women, about life. She is an accomplished and skilled novelist.

It is thus with a note of disappointment that I bring myself to review her latest novel as of 2004, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon (Spanish title: El Reino del Dragón de Oro). I read it in Spanish, and an English translation is readily available. After reading other people's impression of the book, I can safely assure her English-speaking readers that the problems with this book cannot be blamed on Allende's craft getting lost in translation as they had hoped.

On the back cover of The Kingdom of the Golden Dragon we read that this is a story to be enjoyed by people of all ages, and we know what that really advertises: it is a children's or young adult's story. So it is. Within these pages we will follow the voyages of American adventuress Kate Cold and her grandson Alexander Cold into the cold reaches of the Himalaya. They travel together again with quasi-Amazon girl Nadia Santos picking up where they left off in City of the Beasts, Allende's previous work in this trilogy (I surmise this label is a promise for a third book). The globe-trotting trio will encounter misery and opulence in the Indian subcontinent, marauding bandits, Tibetan monks, kings, and princes; the Yeti, and other uncountable clichés. This reads much more like a Tintin bande dessineé than a novel of Isabel Allende.

Listen to the plot summary: Kate and Alexander reside in New York City working for the magazine International Geographic. Alexander is a typical teenager like Archie Andrews, except that he's been a little transformed by his experience in the Amazon and now insists to be called by his totemic animal, the jaguar (ROWR!). Nadia, the Amazon jungle teen whom Alexander also calls "Eagle" (I believe I can fly!) after her own totemic animal, soon joins them in the Big Apple in preparation for an expedition to the Forbidden Kingdom (dum, dum, DUM!) of Tibet for photographs for International Geographic. Elsewhere, the Specialist and the Collector are arranging to steal the mystical jewel-encrusted Golden Dragon (oh no!). Naturally, Kate, Alexander, and Nadia happen to be in the right place at the right time, and after meeting the exotic natives (oooh!) and many lethal perils (gasp!), with the help of a mind-bending warrior monk Tensing (ki-YAAH!) and a braveheart prince Dil-Bahadur (sexy!) foil the plans of the Specialist (curses!) and save the day (yay!). Of course, most of the hard work is carried out by the Terrific Teenage Team of Alexander (go, go, power Jaguar!) and Nadia (jungle babe extraordinaire!) while Kate orchestrates what she can from the background (gracious Granny!).

Yes, this is The Rocky Horror Show of young adult fiction. I wished I could have seen this story with a knowing audience and tossed some toast onto the stage.

The banality of the plot is not my greatest complaint with this book. There are plenty other problems. First let me mention the stereotypical portrayal of Indian and Tibetan culture. Buddhism everywhere, an ideal religion of peace and harmony. Buddhist monks who regularly perform superhuman feats without batting an eyelash. Rulers are always wise and benevolent, and everyone is peaceful. Envy, jealousy, and pride are unheard of. There is no vice in Tibetan culture, and us savage Westerners would do well to learn from it.

When the Tintin books came out, it was ok to make Tibet seem like a safe haven, a place isolated from the world for millenia, a perfect society with a perfect religion. Anyways, who could have known better; who would have argued otherwise? The Western world was smaller back then. Finding an "other" culture to cast into the exotic spotlight was easier. I cannot understand Allende trying to get away with the same stunt in 2003 when this book came out. She has committed the double sin of giving us stereotypes and clichés. How could she build anything but shallow and cookie-cuttered characters this way?

If someone is trying to present a different culture and can only resort to stereotypes to do so, that person has only succeeded in displaying her ignorance of that culture. Even worse is when someone just gets it wrong. I squirmed each time that Allende used the word "karma" in lieu of "dharma" to refer to each person's duty or destiny. When an author fails to look up a word in the dictionary before she uses it (perhaps in her defense she can say that dharma is not in the dictionary of the Royal Academy of Spanish, although karma is), her credibility will suffer.

The last serious error Allende made in telling this story is in her use of magic. In her past novels we can find a hint of magical realism here and there, and it works fine. Magic belongs in magical realism; we've come to expect it. In Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, magic, however, is a cure-all, the universal solution, and it feels out of place. We know that any storyteller who uses magic or any other fantastic element in her story must make it clear that magic and fantasy often cause as many problems as the ones they solve. Perhaps we write our stories this way in reflection of the way technology works precisely so in our life: fixing as much as it breaks. A story is much more credible when not everything can be solved with "the power of the mind" or by "listening with the heart". Magic and fantasy also require a minimum explanation or internal logic when introduced in a story. Allende breaks all of these rules, with disastrous results.

It seems that whenever the characters face a serious problem, magic will always be there to rescue them (the only exception I can find in this book is when one of the protagonists gets rescued by a pet monkey -- Disney's Aladdin anyone?). Oh no, can't understand what the furriners are saying! Not a problem, just "listen with the heart" (always in quotes) and you will be able to talk with them in perfectly clear Spanish (or English, if you're reading the translation). Zounds, I really need to relay a message to my granny! Well, then use telepathy, silly. Uh-oh, there are many guards in the castle! Pshaw, piece of cake, just turn invisible and sneak by. An avalanche is about to crush you to death! Transmogrify into a jaguar and leap to safety, no sweat. A cobra eyes you menacingly! Calmly explain in snake talk to Mr Cobra that you are not interested in getting bitten. Ouch, you fell down a cliff, you're badly bruised, cold, hungry, and your shoulder is dislocated! Not to worry, you can invoke Buddhist monks to your rescue if you project your totemic animal to them. They will have you fixed in a spiffy by healing your dislocated shoulder with the power of their mind in a few hours. Remember to "listen with the heart" to their careful telepathic instructions.

One is reminded of children playing "pretend" games and Everything-Proof Shields. This was fun when we were five or six years old, and not much more after that.

I have to defend Allende against her critics on one respect. I can only agree with them partially about the dialogue. It is a little stilted and contrived, true, although I find it functional and not terribly distracting. As for the plot of this book, banal as it may be, it does have the merit of moving fast. It was the only thing that kept me reading this book to the end, the urging desire to find out what would happen next, how the next problem would find its newfangled solution. Further, maybe I'm an idiot, but I was not expecting the identity of the villain revealed at the end. I credit Allende with giving me one surprise in this book. It is comparable to reading a comic book, flashy colours and shallow story, and perhaps this story would have worked much better in the same comic book format of Tintin.

Now we're left to wonder why. Isabel Allende, such a skilled writer, she's proven herself in the past; why is she writing such drivel now? And for whom? Is she seeking commercial success? Is she short of cash and wants to "MAKE MONEY FA$$$T NW!!!"? If so, this is the wrong way to do it, and a very poor imitation of J. K. Rowling. I can only imagine that she was writing this book for preteens or older children who like to live in escapist fantasy, who want to be told that the Other World out there in the fog-shrouded Himalayas is just how they imagined it, that teenagers are kick-ass, and everything-proof shields really work. Other than those children and those of us who still house such a child in our hearts, I cannot imagine that anyone else will derive any great enjoyment from reading this book.

I like her older stuff better. Go read that instead.

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