Ancient African mysticism meets the technological age, as Ethan Flynn, a computer-centered fifteen-year-old, is forced to go camping with his cousin Joe in the wilds of Zimbabwe. It is difficult enough to leave the comforts of a roof and enclosing walls behind, but plans have changed to allow in a friend of Joe’s, Tariro, who has nothing but disdain and contempt for the geeky cousin.
The first thing Ethan finds strange is that, even though there are two crocodiles swimming lazily among the locals, no one pays them any heed. It seems to him that they are treated as pets, which is certainly not a common attitude toward maneaters.
Things go from bad to weird in a New York hurry when Joe suddenly disappears. In his place is Gogo Maya, a witch who has switched places with him to get out of some trouble she is having in her own land. Along with her comes her leopard familiar, Salih, who takes to Ethan right away–especially since Evan gives Gogo Maya CPR in order to save her life. Ethan finds that Salih can communicate to him via thought patterns–and only to him, which makes him even weirder in the sight of the other boys–especially Tariro’s.
The witch is grateful, but also apologetic about the switch. Usually, she explains, she switches with a rock or a tree and no one is the wiser. Calculations having been wrong this time (the whole process is pretty much a wild guess anyway), she switches back to see if she can find Joe. But her powers have been sapped–by Ethan. When he “kissed the witch”, as the others describe it, he absorbed most of her abilities. So everyone else must go to her country via a more conventional way.
To Ethan’s chagrin, he finds himself in charge of a small handful of seekers intent on getting into the magic land through an underground river. Not only does Salih come along, but they are also accompanied by Fisi, a shape-shifting hyena-boy; the crocodiles, Darwishi and Amun (shape-shifting humans as well), who pull the makeshift rafts; Tariro; and Jimoh, a friendly and knowledgeable local boy.
Along the way they meet hippos, the Sobek crocodile people, a weird little tribe known as the Tokoloshe, and strange creatures, such as the vampiric fireflies called the Adze.
In the meantime, Joe is having his own adventures: he meets up with a strange, but friendly, talking tiger; he is caught and strung up by fierce hyena shape-shifters and saved by a group of the same people; running away, he is led by the tiger to the Almohad people, a charming but brutal, self-absorbed tribe that treats all outsiders as slaves and property. He becomes the slave of Kitoko, whose sister, Nandi, wants Joe for herself. Joe gets no help from the tiger, who sits by passively and waits.
For the tiger has his own agenda…
Throughout the journey, Ethan is learning a lot–about the outside world, other people, and especially about how much he can really do for himself and for others, and that he can conquer adversity through his own self-reliance.
As for me, all I can say is, “Wow!!!”
What a fantastic story! This may be classified as YA, but there is no reason why adults can’t enjoy it too. All the adventure of Tom Sawyer, and all the “life’s lessons learned” as well. The story started with a bang and just kept going. There were a lot of characters along the way, and every one of them was rounded out and given a personality. Africa, with its varied and colorful environments, was so richly detailed.
I’m looking forward to the next installment in this series. I have to know–does Tariro learn to use his magic correctly, or does he exploit it because of his rather large ego? Inquiring minds want to know…