Retro Book Review: Beyond the Great Wall (Choose Your Own Adventure).

It’s been almost a year since my last Choose Your Own Adventure review. The last one I did went up on October 23, 2016, and since then I’ve been through a traumatic Presidential election and a complete life transition involving a change of jobs, homes and moving to a different city. But my project, begun way back in the summer of 2013, to review as many Choose Your Own Adventure books as possible is not dead. I’m glad to get back into things with what turned out to be a very enjoyable volume, Beyond the Great Wall by Jay Leibold, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite CYOA authors.

Beyond the Great Wall by Jay Leibold (illustrated by Yee Chea Lin)
Published: August 1987
Number in the CYOA Series: 73

A lot of the Choose Your Own Adventures recycle tropes and many are self-referential, but I feel like Beyond the Great Wall is the first one I’ve read that actually mines the nostalgia of the series itself. By 1987, when this book was published, the series had been officially going for 8 years, and it had been at least ten since Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery wrote the first test volumes. Beyond the Great Wall seems to want to recapture the adventurous innocence of those early books, by starting with a very simple premise, which expands to a grand adventure in a foreign land and which has clearly-defined objectives and a lot of old-fashioned adventure set-pieces. It also involves taking a hot air balloon across the desert. That was the explicit scenario of book #3, By Balloon to the Sahara by D. Terman (long suspected, though I think erroneously, to be an alias of Packard or Montgomery), and was so iconic that until the cover redesign of the mid-1980s, the hot air balloon was an unofficial logo of the series.

Beyond the Great Wall is, at least nominally, a historical adventure. It’s 1901 and you’re in England, and a collector of Buddhist antiquities, one Baron von Frothingham, is putting up a reward for anyone who can find his friend Dr. Pinckney, who vanished in the interior of China while searching for the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas. It’s a race against time and your competitors, who are variously described as “riff-raff” and “cutthroats.” That’s really all there is to the plot. The first choice is whether you leave for China immediately, or gain more information in England by talking to a Cambridge prof, one Montgomery (an homage to the CYOA co-founder?), who knows something about the Sinkiang region. After that, it’s all a Phineas Fogg-style adventure in Asia in late Victorian times. The premise is uncomplicated, but very solid.

In a couple of plots in Beyond the Great Wall you encounter Mongols who live on the steppe in yurts, like these. Minus the motorcycles, of course. Many central Asians still live this way.

The plots that Leibold weaves into the narrative are exactly what you’d expect. In one, you get trailed by Tsarist agents while traveling aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, which in 1901 had just opened. In another, you fall in with a group of Chinese revolutionaries trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. The hot air balloon plot, where you buy the balloon from an Englishman in Srinigar as a way to cross the Karakoram Range, is also exactly what you’d expect. There’s breathtaking scenery, a caravan inching like ants across the desert below you, a sandstorm to dodge, etc. In a couple of plots you get mixed up with Mongols, and Leibold gets to throw in a lot of colorful details about the Silk Road and the lives of nomads on the Asian steppe. Nowhere in these plots was I ever bored, and Leibold tends to pepper his books with more “win” endings than do other CYOA writers, so your quest is successful more often than not.

I say the book is nostalgic, but perhaps it only seems that way if you noticed how the CYOA series evolved, especially in these middle years of the franchise. For the most part, the low-hanging fruit in terms of story ideas that would make interesting interactive books–you are a secret agent, you’re a gunfighter in the Old West, you’re sent on a mission to colonize another planet, etc.–was largely picked off in the first 20 or 30 books. By now, with more than 70 books behind them, writers searched for increasingly more specialized scenarios, like diving for Spanish treasure in the Caribbean or a secret agent adventure involving a man who explodes like a bombBeyond the Great Wall seems to hark back to those early ideas with a scenario of great simplicity, and isn’t afraid to tread familiar ground. There’s a certain audacity to this.

You actually don’t see the Great Wall that often in this book (though it does appear). Most of the action takes place in western China, near where the Wall begins; it does not look like this there.

There are really only two things I didn’t like about the book. One is that the first choice leads to rather a stunted branch of decisions; you hit a “The End” very quickly no matter what you do, which means if you want to keep reading you have really only one choice at the outset. I call this a “forced choice” and it tends to annoy me. The second thing is that, in several plots, you do actually find Dr. Pinckney, but you always find him in the same place and the same situation. In an interactive book, couldn’t Leibold have mixed it up, with Pinckney showing up in Situation A in one plot and Situation B in another? This is similar to my criticism of books like Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? which, despite the interactivity, has only one overall resolution. This seems like a waste of the book’s potential.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Beyond the Great Wall very much. It’s a well-written, entertaining, no-nonsense adventure. Kids will love it. Leibold turns in another solid piece of work.

Grade: A minus

Next up: Richard Brightfield takes us to the Planet of the Dragons.

The header image in this article was taken by me, and features the cover of the CYOA book which are copyrighted. The other photos are Creative Commons 0 license (public domain).
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