Entry number 10 in the Choose Your Own Adventure series is a sleeper–even a lot of CYOA fans don’t remember it–but it’s among the better of the early books. A fast-paced, world-chase type adventure story, R.A. Montgomery’s The Lost Jewels of Nabooti is the sort of book that the dismal Your Code Name is Jonah wishes it was. And it’s the only book in the series featuring a cover illustration of three kids running across a guy’s afro!
The Lost Jewels of Nabooti by R.A. Montgomery
I think Nabooti is the first of the CYOA books to get out of the “demo” stage. By this one, number ten and two years into the run of the series, it definitely feels like the time for wobbly shakedown cruises is over and we’re ready for some more innovative adventures. Nabooti holds true to the tropes of the series, but also explores them in a new and interesting way.
The setup is, by now, standard. “You” have no specific identity, such as a secret agent, cowboy or astronaut. Halfway through your summer vacation (trope #1) you receive an urgent telegram (how quaint!) from your adventurous cousins (trope #2), Peter and Lucy, telling you to jet off to Boston because the Jewels of Nabooti have been stolen. What are the Jewels of Nabooti? It doesn’t really matter–it’s what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, an object that is unimportant in its own right but serves entirely as the engine to drive the plot. So right away you can tell we’re going to have a modern thriller with a quest at its heart, globetrotting travel, and probably stuff involving smugglers, thieves or terrorists.
Montgomery sets up this premise on page 2, and delivers on it pretty consistently throughout the book. The first choice is whether to fly to Morocco via Paris–why the jewels are supposed to be there is not explained–or whether to demand an explanation from your cousins. The former choice introduces you to one of the creepier supporting characters of the series, the Unnamed Guy With No Fingernails, while the latter gets you shot at. The various decision trees that branch off from there cover an unusually large amount of ground for a CYOA book, with action occurring in Paris, Tangiers, Boston, Cote D’Ivorie (called the Ivory Coast in 1981), the Ruwenzori mountains in central Africa, Spain, Chad, or the headwaters of the Zaire River.
The choices aren’t always logical, but the book moves so quickly that you barely get a chance to catch your breath before something else happens. Montgomery resists the tendencies that plague his books elsewhere in the series, such as losing the plot focus, or veering off into territory so outlandish that it tests the limits of willing suspension of disbelief–tendencies that both surface in his most well-known CYOA entry, The Abominable Snowman. The plot is relentlessly focused on recovering the jewels, and the things that happen, though appropriately wild and surprising, at least aren’t so farfetched that you feel R.A. has taken leave of his senses.
I’ll start my usual rundown of pluses and minuses with the elements I liked:
- The character of Molotawa, whom you first meet on p. 15, is a pretty good supporting character. He’s loyal, dependable and interesting, and provides several crucial plot points. Yes, it’s his afro that appears prominently on the cover.
- In a few choices, you control not only your own decisions, but the course the story takes independently of you. For instance, you can choose whether a supporting character, Beech Muzzwell, is available or not to help you search for the jewels. If you choose that he’s not, p. 23 informs you that “Beech Muzzwell is reportedly climbing in the Hindu Kush mountains with an international team of alpinists.”
- The intrigue in the Tangiers casbah is very atmospheric and colorful. It reminds me of the chases you sometimes see in James Bond films.
- “You have exactly thirty-six seconds by my digital watch to decide to come with us or not!” (p. 40)
- The totally gratuitous warning on p. 60 about the waters of Lake Chad. “DON’T SWIM IN THIS LAKE! IT IS FILLED WITH PARASITES THAT CAN KILL YOU!”
- Your death on page 78 is one of the most ingenious in the entire series–you are blown up with a robot dog that is actually a bomb. Handed to you by a midget. Seriously! This ending rules!
- The Heart of Darkness reference on p. 81. “You have heard tales of a man called Kurtz. It is rumored that he holds the Jewels of Nabooti.”
As always, not everything is pitch-perfect. Here are some things I didn’t like.
- Sometimes the depictions of Africa and Africans verge on the kind of insensitive stereotypes you’d see in old movies from the 40s and 50s.
- The mountain climbing subplot–the “Mountains of the Moon”–seems forced. It’s obvious that R.A. Montgomery likes to write about mountain climbing, but he should have waited to do The Abominable Snowman instead of presenting us the half-assed preview we see here.
- There are a couple of nonsensical endings that border on jokes. I suppose the robot bomb-dog counts as one, although that one is well done, but the ending on page 64 (“Who lurks out there? What awaits you?”) is a groan-inducing cop-out, as is the p. 116 ending involving “Do the Nabooti–a new hit tune.” Facepalm time.
On the whole, though, The Lost Jewels of Nabooti is a pretty satisfying adventure. With the exception of not having “you” be a secret agent, this book ironically succeeds at almost everything Your Code Name is Jonah tried to do and failed. Montgomery can be incredibly uneven, but this is one of his better efforts.
Grade: A minus
I may do one more of the “demo” books in the first ten, before tackling the wild and wacky teens (meaning the CYOA books between 10 and 20). Keep checking back for more.