As I begin this review I realize the word “Terror” is one of the most popular words in Choose Your Own Adventure titles–in fact this is the second review on a row (the other one being The Trumpet of Terror) in which it appears. From a quick eyeball analysis, “Terror” is the third most popular word in CYOA titles, appearing five times. “Secret” appears eight times and “Mystery,” the winner, eleven. I’m not sure how much real “terror” there is in Terror Island, which is a passable, if not especially noteworthy, adventure. At least it’s light-years beyond author Tony Koltz’s first CYOA book, Vampire Express, which gets my nomination for the most disappointing book (though not the worst book, by far) in the entire series.
Terror Island by Tony Koltz (illustrated by Ron Wing)
Published: August 1986
Number in the CYOA Series: 59
Terror Island is nothing if not a pastiche. It’s an adventure story fairly competently assembled from the pieces of various other stories, including bits that echo previous CYOA adventures. I could pitch it, perhaps not totally fairly, as “House of Danger meets Survival at Sea.” It has a lot of exciting adventure set-pieces, some very elaborate, but almost all are taken from 1930s/40s movie serials, popular films or tropes from other adventure stories. It’s not really that original, and doesn’t hum along like House of Danger does, but at least it’s a page-turner.
In this book, who “you” are is not defined. You’re accompanying your family friend Bill aboard a sailing ship called the Starbuck to a place called Pitcairn, er, I mean “Bligh Island,” for what ostensible reason is not explained. However, it is hinted strongly that Bill is a CIA agent and he’s here to study the island. As a volcano on the island erupts, your boat suddenly strikes a mine and crashes into a reef. Bill tells you the mine was laid by some organization called Omicron, evidently an evil corporation that uses the island as its headquarters. You’re swept off the boat and your first choice is whether to swim back to it, or swim to shore.
The fictional “Bligh Island” in Terror Island is a trope of literature, but the real-life Tetepare Island, in the Solomons, which (among others) I profiled here, is the kind of place that it most resembles.
This is a standard “infiltration” type story. Evil organization holds a supposedly impregnable fortress, and your mission is ultimately to infiltrate it and bring it down. In the various plots you can join forces with a Soviet spy who is on the same mission, a Red Chinese spy (same thing, different character), or the rightful owner of Bligh Island, a Brit named Ffloyd. Yes, Ffloyd, with two Fs. Omicron is a pretty colorless, monolithic evil entity whose goal is defined only as to “take over the world.” They have an army of slaves whose minds are controlled by dorky-looking plastic helmets right out of Speed Racer. They’re also breeding hostile animals, including genetically-engineered dinosaurs. The plots are all infiltration story tropes: slipping into Omicron’s headquarters by various means, inciting slave revolts, and in at least two plots meeting the evil geniuses behind the corporation, both of whom are disappointing villains. It’s standard paint-by-numbers, but it’s well-written and the pace is fast.
One problem with this book is that the reader doesn’t get to make a choice all that often. Of a 121-page book, the reader is presented with a decision only 18 times (incidentally, there are also 18 endings, abnormally few for a CYOA book). By contrast I counted 59 pages where the reader is instructed, without any choice, to go to another page. Lack of interactivity has annoyed me before in the series. It just seems like a lack of engagement with the full possibilities of the interactive format of these books.
The “Omicron Corporation” headquarters in this book evokes a lot of the classic James Bond villain lairs, especially the volcano redoubt from You Only Live Twice. That set was designed by Ken Adam–who just died recently–and its genesis is explained in this video.
One interesting aspect of Terror Island that I noticed was how it unwittingly foreshadowed various other bits of popular culture. It was written in 1986, but if it was modern one could arguably perceive the following homages to later works, whether intentional or not:
- Jurassic Park: a secret island where scientists are manipulating DNA and cloning extinct animals, including dinosaurs.
- Gladiator and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones: “you” and another character are forced to fight bizarre creatures in an arena for spectators.
- Tomorrow Never Dies: in one plot you end up escaping the island with a master spy from Red China, similar to Michelle Yeoh’s character in the 1997 James Bond film.
- Lost: the action takes place on a South Pacific island with curious properties, on which you are stranded.
The best thing I can say about this book is that Tony Koltz has redeemed himself. I was so disappointed by Vampire Express that I was quite wary of this one, and although it’s nothing special, it’s far better than that (ironically much more popular) book. Incidentally there’s a reference to Vampire Express in this one: at one point you encounter a vampire named Zoltan, who is a character from the previous book. Alas, he turns out to be a holographic projection. I did enjoy the reference, though.
Terror Island is not great, but it’s enjoyable. Forgettable, perhaps, but enjoyable.
Next up: Deborah Lerme Goodman takes another try with Vanished!