lost on amazon

Here we have an interesting specimen: a Choose Your Own Adventure book loosely inspired by a Mozart opera, taking place against the backdrop of a particularly vivid and exotic locale, with a slightly more serious tone than many of R.A. Montgomery’s previous CYOA adventures. Indeed it stands out as one of the more moody entries in the series. Alas, while aiming high, Lost on the Amazon unfortunately devolves into a fairly standard paint-by-numbers interactive adventure, which is a shame, given its terrific promise.

The Race Forever by R.A. Montgomery (illustrated by Leslie Morrill)

Published: September 1983

Number in the CYOA Series: 24

In many of R.A. Montgomery’s books, “you” are something specific–an undersea explorer, a paranormal investigator, a race car driver, etc. In Lost on the Amazon you’re a doctor, specializing in tropical diseases. You’ve come to Brazil with a large expedition to go into the Amazonian rainforest and treat tropical diseases among primitive tribes. (If this were a Star Trek episode that would be a violation of the Prime Directive, but I digress). You’ve been delayed in getting to Manaus, your jumping-off point, and the others have gone ahead. As it turns out, they have been lured into the jungle by the call of a magic flute, for what reason is not explained. You have to go off and find them. The first choice is whether you go with a native guide in a dugout canoe, rent a plane, or wait for the River Patrol to mount a rescue expedition.

Okay. That’s not bad. There’s an unusual amount of aimless page-turning and lengthy exposition to get here, but the style of the prose, slightly more reflective than R.A. usually gives us, signals that this is going to be a more introspective, slower-paced adventure. The song of the magic flute is a nice touch. This comes right out of Mozart’s last opera, Die Zauberflote (“The Magic Flute”). I love these highbrow references that R.A. occasionally drops; in The Lost Jewels of Nabooti he laid a Heart of Darkness reference on us. You only appreciate these things by re-reading the books as an adult.

Alas, after a pretty decent set-up, Lost on the Amazon loses steam almost immediately. Of the initial choices the best one is to go with the native guide, Owaduga, which at least gets you onto the water and into the jungle fairly quickly. The other choices lead to an almost circular thicket of frustrating avenues in trying to get the search going at all–waiting for pilots, convincing the River Patrol, etc. In fact most of the early pathways through the book deal with this sort of “logistical frustration” thing. A few lead to endings, but none are interesting.

If you do go into the jungle, things are a little better, but not much. One of the major plot points is that you meet up with a tribe of women called, predictably, Amazons. Of course, Amazons, at least in classical mythology, lived in the ancient Hellenic (Greek) world, and had nothing to do with the Amazon River; in fact the river is named for the warrior women of Greek mythology, not the other way around! Alas, a minor point. Various adventures split off in various directions. You could get captured (more than once) or killed (several times) by hostile tribes. You could save a primitive village from a terrible fever. You could fall victim to the siren call of the flute yourself, and wind up in various situations–one of which comes close to R.A. Montgomery’s signature trait of adding fantastic and supernatural elements, often from different genres, whenever it suits him. In some endings you find your friends. In others you don’t. It’s even money.

The problem with Lost on the Amazon is that, while it has something of a plot, it doesn’t really have much of a point. Although there’s a goal (find your friends), this goal does not generate any real tension in the story, the way the hunt for the jewels does in The Lost Jewels of Nabooti or finishing the race does in The Race Forever. Your friends, who are never seen in the book, exist solely as a plot device. You’re looking for them because that’s a plot mechanic device that’s necessary, but nothing else. How about this: one of the missing members of your expedition is your spouse, or your best friend, or Dr. Albert Schweitzer whose loss to the world will mean millions dead from preventable diseases. Or, maybe something like the movie Medicine Man, where your expedition is looking for a rare flower or something that can cure cancer. Why not up the stakes a little? Those ideas would at least generate some plot threads; as it is, R.A. seems to be ginning them up out of whole cloth as fast as he can throw them down on the page.

There are some very good things about this book. I really do like the slightly slower pace and more introspective tone–as a jungle doctor, “you” seem to be driven by a sense of altruism, and some of the choices you make (or don’t make) suggest that perhaps R.A. was intending to portray a more thoughtful, adult “you” than has often been the case. Also, the illustrations by first-time CYOA artist Leslie Morrill are much more stylistic and far less comic-strippy or cartoony than most other books. Some of the illustrations could hang on your wall as stand-alone pieces of art.

Overall, this is a mixed bag. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either. R.A., try again.

Grade: B minus

Next up is a double CYOA review–The Forbidden Castle, both its original 1982 version, and the expanded, revised “re-boot” that came out just this year. And soon after that, I will be interviewing CYOA founder Edward Packard!