This autumn has been a bit of a rough season in Choose Your Own Adventure land, what with the unfortunate death of the series co-founder R.A. Montgomery early last month. But I intend to soldier on, as I still love these books and I know many readers of this blog do as well. After coming into the present to review a current (2014) CYOA title, as of now I’m back in the ’80s, reviewing another classic title: Jay Leibold’s Grand Canyon Odyssey. Strap on your life jacket and let’s get started!
Grand Canyon Odyssey by Jay Leibold (illustrated by Don Hedin)
Published: April 1985
Number in the CYOA Series: 43
Some minor missteps aside, Grand Canyon Odyssey is just about everything a Choose Your Own Adventure book should be. It’s a tight, engaging, fast-moving adventure story with a spectacular setting, an interesting plot, a clear objective and a lot of creative twists and turns. Jay Leibold got a great start in the CYOA series in 1984 with Sabotage (which I reviewed positively), and in Grand Canyon Odyssey he fine-tunes his style and gets firmly into the groove with an adventure every bit as satisfying as the classic adventures like The Lost Jewels of Nabooti or The Abominable Snowman.
In this book, “you” are some sort of river runner. You get a call from a rancher named Bill who has a ranch just north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. A herd of his horses have vanished, and their footprints end at the edge of the canyon. He wants you to float down the river and find them. Why Bill doesn’t simply charter a helicopter is never explained, but of course you take the job, and soon you’re preparing to raft down the Colorado River with your friend Delia, a Native American (Navajo) guide who’s familiar with the area. Your first choice is whether to shoot the rapids late in the day or make camp and try in the morning.
Whichever choice you make is essentially irrelevant, because both lead to the bare-knuckled, white water adventures you’d expect from this scenario. Leibold serves up about everything he can think of to validate the title “Grand Canyon Odyssey,” and then some. At one point you’re fighting whirlpools and white water, trying to rescue Delia who’s fallen overboard. In another you’re being lured away from your campsite at night by a pair of glowing yellow eyes. (No, it’s not Scut Farkus!) The most “adventurey” parts of your adventure are the various plots where you slip back in time–something Delia warns you, in the opening exposition pages, might happen. (Nice way to put Chekov’s rifle up there on the wall, Jay). You can slip back to Anasazi times, cross swords with a greedy Spanish conquistador named Don Pizarro, or, my personal favorite, join the famous 1869 Colorado River expedition of geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell.
I really enjoyed the plot involving Powell, who is portrayed historically accurately. I remember a great IMAX film from the 90s called Grand Canyon which included a reenactment of the 1869 expedition as well as some spectacular shots taken from the nose of a white-water raft. I found the trailer for that film on YouTube, and it does briefly include a clip of the Powell footage, around about :27 in.
For all its branching plots and walk-on characters, Grand Canyon Odyssey remains remarkably focused on its main premise, which is the disappearance of the horses. In some of the plots you find them; in others you don’t, but there are several different explanations as to what happened to them, all of which are unique and well-done. Some of the plots here involve the mystical qualities of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River which is a nice touch. In one plot, for example, you meet Coyote, a key figure in various creation stories of Southwestern Indians. In another plot you stumble upon a Mesa Verde-style cliff city (in one version it’s abandoned; in another it’s occupied), and the Anasazi storyline toys with the very interesting differences in the way Native American cultures viewed time. All of this is really brilliant stuff and very high-concept for a CYOA book. This is why I say Leibold manages to reach, if not completely occupy, the elusive territory occupied by the best of the books, like Packard’s The Third Planet From Altair.
There are some very minor foibles. One plot involving a talking gila monster who spouts riddles was silly and unsatisfying. I also feel more could have been done with the villain of Don Pizarro, although in one adventure with him you do get to see the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola. For her part, the sidekick Delia is not fleshed out very well as a character. But these points didn’t detract very much from the book as a whole.
Grand Canyon Odyssey is well-plotted, well-written and a lot of fun. As the CYOA series got into the bottom half of its first decade, truly stand-out books became harder to find, but this clearly is one. I look forward to the next Leibold-authored adventure.
Next on my list to review is The Deadly Shadow, but I might pick up another new series book to do first.