Quite a few straight-fiction authors have taken to writing children's fantasy -- Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Carl Hiaasen. But Isabel Allende struck out in "City of the Beasts," an excruciatingly dull, preachy, awkwardly written fantasy with some of the most obnoxious characters imaginable. While Allende is a talented writer of magical realism, straight-out fantasy seems beyond her.
Alexander Cold's mother is suffering from cancer, and while she is in Texas for chemotherapy he is sent to stay with his grandmother Kate. Not only is Kate unstable and weird, but also is heading off on an expedition into the Amazon jungle to find a sort of jungle yeti called "the Beast."
Though initially disliking the expedition, Alexander befriends Nadia, the daughter of the guide, who teaches him about the wildlife and the natives of the Amazon. Alexander quickly falls in step with Nadia, learning all about his totem animal and magic. But soon they discover that the jungle and the mysterious "People of the Mist" are in danger of destruction -- by someone in their group.
One of the worst things about this book is the fact that Allende seems to keep in mind constantly that she is writing for kids. A good book can be appreciated by adults and children alike. You don't have to dumb it down. But dumb it down she does -- she seems to think that not only is her audience young, but also too unintelligent to appreciate good literature.
While Allende gives great care to her regular novels, here she seems sloppy, having her heroes magically develop powers whenever they are needed. For example, there's a language barrier between Alexander and the People. No problem -- he just "listens with his heart" and the language thing isn't a problem.
Part of the book's dullness is the extreme detail that Allende throws in, apparently to show that she did her research. Enormous stretches are devoted to life on the Amazon, justifying ritual cannibalism and interbreeding polygamy. In other words, when she wants to lecture readers about piranha, expect the plot to grind to a halt. Unfortunately, that focus on detail also kills all sense of urgency -- when someone is murdered, the others don't get upset. Instead they argue about funerary rites.
Moreover, Allende's attention seems to wander halfway through the book -- she seems to forget all about the "conspiracy" and Alexander's dying mother, only to yank up the plot threads a few hundred pages later. The backhistory of the mysterious "Beasts" is both boring and silly, as is the frantic conspiracy that Allende rigs up near the end.
Alexander Cold is a ridiculously boring character, especially since halfway through the book, he sheds all his doubts and fears. Nadia is portrayed as a quirky, magical girl, but her New-Age preaching and preening make her seem like a mouthpiece. Kate comes across as abusive rather than strong, and the professor is so absurdly racist, sexist and boorish that he's impossible to take seriously. All "modern" people are evil or whiny, while the Indians are noble -- in other words, Allende opted to write cliches rather than characters.
And most unforgivably: The preachiness. On every other page Allende reminds us how wonderful nature is, despite portraying the Amazon as a nightmare hole, and having a seemingly sympathetic character murder an animal to "set it free." She never makes us feel any awe or love for nature, or any real urgency to conserve the wild places of the world.
The beauty of nature -- and human nature -- are lacking in "City of the Beasts," a sloppy and poorly thought-out excuse for a fantasy. Allende should stick to magical realism.