In Secret of the Sun God, author Andrea Packard–presumably the daughter of Choose Your Own Adventure series co-founder Edward Packard, whom I interviewed in 2013–has one or two main stories she really wanted to tell, and a stunning set-piece worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. The rest of the book is largely padding, but it’s still a decent, if not particularly memorable, CYOA book.
Secret of the Ninja by Andrea Packard (illustrated by Yee Chea Lin)
Published: June 1987
Number in the CYOA Series: 68
This is the second book in a row I’ve reviewed with “Secret” in the title; that and “Mystery” are the most common words in CYOA titles. A seasoned CYOA reader can predict, just by looking at the cover, most of the elements that will appear in the story: some sort of ancient people, evidently Mesoamerican; a mystical experience or adventure; an exotic land; and somebody turning into an eagle. All of these things are true of the book. In that sense, Secret of the Sun God delivers exactly what it promises–but no more.
It’s summer vacation (trope) and your Adventurous Relative, in this case an aunt (trope), evidently an archaeologist (trope), invites you to join her in Mexico. She’s searching for something called “the Temple of the Sun” built by a people called the Olmetecans, who were supposedly wiped out when the Spanish took over Mexico in the 16th century. But of course some are rumored to have survived (trope). You go to Mexico, wearing a shawl with a mystical pattern given to you by your aunt. By the time you arrive in the village where she was staying–a tiny hamlet called Cholula–she seems to have vanished. Your first choice is whether to look for her at her house, or look up her friend Orlando, whom she conveniently told you to contact in case anyone happened to her.
The “Temple of the Sun” in this book may have been inspired by the real-life Pyramid of the Sun at the ancient Mesoamerican site of Teotihuacan.
The exposition is a bit clunky, and the mystery that unfolds once you get to Cholula is not very exciting: two smugglers, Juan and Ramon, are intent on finding the Temple of the Sun so they can steal its treasures. Of course you get kidnapped by them, in one of the major plots; of course they’re bumbling fools so dim-witted you suspect they couldn’t smuggle a cigarette into a high school bathroom, much less running jewels across international borders. These aren’t the stories Ms. Packard wants to tell. The writing takes on a much more colorful and engaged tone once you discover the Olmetecans themselves. Your mystical adventures with them in the wilds outside Cholula, and in caves leading to the Temple of the Sun, are the main reason why this book exists. The rather tepid twists and turns of the plot are merely devices to get you into the Olmetecans’ company. I could sense Packard was somewhat bored with the rest of the plot’s trappings.
To her credit, once you discover the Temple of the Sun (on p. 107), it’s easily one of the most stunning set-pieces in the whole series. Imagine every lavish trope in every “hidden temple” in Indiana Jones and you’ll have it: walls covered in Mesoamerican hieroglyphs, pools of gold, a giant crystal eagle, etc. Packard can’t resist throwing in some fairly heavy-handed moral choices. Can you resist stealing some of the treasures for yourself? Gee, you don’t think that will lead to your death, do you? (It’s on p. 61). Make nice with the Olmetecans and enjoy your spiritual adventures, and you’ll invariably get to a “win” ending. There’s nothing ground-breaking here, but nothing too disappointing either.
Far from being a sleepy Mexican village, Cholula in real life is a pretty sizable city. It is known for its many churches.
I read in the “About the Author” section that Secret of the Sun God grew out of two summers Packard spent in Mexico. After reading the book it’s obvious; her descriptions of sleepy Mexican villages and soaring ruins are quite vivid. Most of the action takes place in and around a place called Cholula, which in this book is a tiny village, but in real life is a pretty large city–the famous hot sauce is named after the city but is actually made in Jalisco. The “Olmetecans” are completely made-up. But the locale is exotic enough to make for an interesting read.
Secret of the Sun God is, in all honesty, a paint-by-numbers adventure. But it’s competently done and diverting for an hour or two, despite some missteps. I note this is also the very last book in my collection that has the original cover design; the second of the original series’ three cover designs was instituted shortly afterward.
Next up: Richard Brightfield versus Invaders of the Planet Earth.