Escape is a very ambitious project for a Choose Your Own Adventure book: a high-stakes, fast-paced action adventure novel set in a dystopian future where the United States, torn by war and rebellion, has split into three hostile countries. The exceedingly busy cover art by Ralph Reese, definitely the most emotive of CYOA illustrators, raises the stakes. Does Escape deliver on its promise? Yes and no. Let’s dive in.

Escape by R.A. Montgomery (illustrated by Ralph Reese)

Published: May 1983

Number in the CYOA Series: 20

Escape begins, appropriately enough, with an image of a jail cell. You are the leader of a group of spies from a country called Turtalia, and you’ve just broken out of a maximum security prison in the country called Dorado, your enemy. Dorado is about to invade Turtalia, and you’ve stolen the plans for the invasion. With you are Mimla, resistance leader; her escort, a guy named Matt (who appropriately enough resembles Matthew McConaghey), and a mousy computer tech guy named Haven. You have to get them across the border into friendly territory.

Oh, there’s a slight but necessary digression explaining what all these countries are. It’s the year 2035 and the USA has broken into these three countries, Turtalia, Dorado and Rebellium. Turtalia is a democracy while Dorado is a military dictatorship. Rebellium doesn’t seem to figure much into the mix, but whatever.

So, right in the space of a few pages we’ve got a lot of very interesting information. The set-up is pretty tense. You’re waiting in a deserted ranch in Gallup, New Mexico to be airlifted out of Dorado by some of your allies, flying a futuristic plane called a Windmaster. But the plane is late. The first choice is, do you wait for it or go back to town and take your chances on getting picked up?

So far so good. As it turns out, the title is very apt. Most of the plot deals with your attempt to get out of Dorado and back to your own country. You can wait for the plane, whose pilot has an inconveniently-timed heart attack at the controls; you can try a ground escape with Doradan police in hot pursuit; or you can hike across the New Mexico desert toward the border. The dangers you encounter are pretty much what you’d expect. Doradan secret agents pop up at inopportune times, and it turns out even one of your own crew is a double agent. (Gee, you don’t think it’s the mousy computer geek, do you? Who saw that coming?)

What’s interesting about Escape is its sense of place. It’s a travelogue of the U.S. Southwest, and R.A. (Montgomery, veteran CYOA author) uses the locations very well. Most are in New Mexico, which R.A. obviously loves. The other strong theme in the book is aviation. I’d say about half the plots take place in the air or involve airplanes in some way. Along with mountain climbing, aviation appears to be an interest of R.A. Montgomery. With all his hobbies and globetrotting, I’m getting the impression he’s MacGyver in his spare time.

For all these strengths, though, the book doesn’t deliver as much on its promise as it should. The whole Dorado-Turtalia-Rebellium split could have been used to some excellent advantage if R.A. was willing to get into it, but it’s a wasted opportunity. How did the United States get this way? What is the ideology of these various countries? What’s the history? I’d love to have known the answers to those, but R.A. never goes there. Exposition and back-story are tough to do in an interactive book, especially one written for kids. Almost everywhere R.A. went for the action line rather than the world-building scenario. He could have used Escape to broaden the horizons of the genre, but alas, nothing really comes of it.

The futuristic setting is also wasted. It’s 2035, and aside from the Windmaster plane, we see virtually no future technology. I mean, I can’t fault R.A. for not predicting iPhones and Blackberries way back in 1983, but if you set a story in the future, you’ve got some opportunities to show cool gadgets, right? Not so here. And why the hell are the Doradans using prop planes as pursuit craft? The planes as drawn by Ralph Reese are right out of 1940. Why the retro technology? 2035 isn’t that far away. Surely there must still be an F-16 operational somewhere in the former US, right?

After the total disaster of the last bookEscape does manage to rescue the CYOA franchise, but I wanted to like this book more than I really did. I remember even as a kid feeling a little bit disappointed. Such a great premise, and it’s passable, but the expectations are so high and the delivery is decidedly reserved. Oh, well; with as many of these books as R.A. Montgomery churned out, not every one of them is going to be Borges.

Grade: B minus

Next up: the single weirdest and most bizarre CYOA book of them all–and certainly the most surprising.

Correction: For some reason I had it in my head that Edward Packard wrote this book, despite the very plain presence of Montgomery’s name on the cover. Thanks to a commenter for curing my brain lapse.