By James Rollins
Published by Orion
ISBN 9781 4440 0085 6
Brilliant fantasy fiction like Harry Potter works when, despite being set in an alternate reality, the story and characters feel believable both during and after reading. But fantasy fiction doesn't work if readers feel compelled to repeatedly utter "As if!" to themselves - and that is what happens from the first page to the last in James Rollins' Jake Ransom and the Howling Sphinx, the second in Jake Ransom series.
That said, there is fun to be had once the story gets past all the coincidences and awkward set-up.
Three months have passed since teen hero Jake returned from the fantasy world of Pangaea where he fought and defeated the evil Skull King, but the student still has no idea where his parents are. Are they still trapped in Pangaea?
In the true tradition of an adventure story, The Howling Sphinx begins with high-octane action meant to grab readers. Jake Ransom is at his taekwondo class when a runaway car smashes through the gym windows, narrowly missing him and his friend Brandon. Jake returns home after the incident to find intruders attacking his guardians. Obviously someone somewhere does not wish Jake well.
The story gets going when Jake and sister Kady visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York. While the two teens are checking out an ancient Egyptian exhibit, they are mysteriously whisked back through time to an empty desert. Are they back in Pangaea?
Thanks to their magic bracelets, the Ransoms run into three youths they befriended the last time they were in the mystical land. The five teens, all from different times and places, find themselves up against the Skull King once more.
The Howling Sphinx is tightly packed with characters and action, not to mention the details of geography and mythology of Pangaea. And this is part of the problem. Rollins has over-egged the pudding and made things unclear. References and characters from The Skull King's Shadow, the first Jake Ransom adventure, are reintroduced in an unconvincing and clumsy way, and there is an air of falseness throughout Jake's encounter with the Howling Sphinx.
Jake himself is a blank character in both books, so it's difficult to identify with and root for him. Kady, a vapid, blonde cheerleader who loves to shop and learn about makeup, will annoy many readers. But perhaps we're not meant to get to know the characters. The plot's pounding action and relentless speed are already a lot to handle.
The Jake Ransom series may be intended to fill the gap left by a certain Mr Potter, but there's no chance of that. There are thrills, spills and cliffhangers in The Howling Sphinx, but it's all quickly forgotten after the final page. More adventures will certainly follow - here's hoping the next one won't be so empty.
John Millen can be contacted at MillenBookshelf@aol.com