Wednesday, March 13, 2013

THE SCORPIONS OF ZAHIR by Christine Brodien-Jones

Brodien-Jones, Christine. The Scorpions of Zahir. New York: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0385739337. $17.99.

Adventure! Archaeology! Lost civilizations and whacked out astronomy! The Scorpions of Zahir packs all of that and more into its colorfully bound exterior, promising the reader an extraordinary adventure. The tale, which follows a young girl and her family as they journey to Morocco in search of her archaeologist father's missing partner, ensnares the reader with a mythical mission to uncover, save, and revitalize the lost civilization of Zahir from being overrun by monstrous scorpions. It just so happens that a rogue planet (though why not meteor?) called Nar Azrak is on course to collide with Earth, specifically upon Morocco, at the same time. Only the restoration of Zahir and its protective qualities can reestablish the balance between planets, people, and beasts. There is a lot to take in, both mythically and astronomically, but the creativity of the storyline unfolds fairly straightforwardly, especially as a foundation for witnessing the determination and growth of the young protagonist, Zagora Pym. Her unbridled enthusiasm carries this story through the wilderness of a foreign country and a cosmic myth come to life; for me, her rambunctious behavior is the most enticing feature of the book and will appeal to middle grade readers of all kinds.

The storyline itself is outrageous and exciting, but does struggle to stay coherent near the end. It's difficult to imagine an actual planet colliding with Earth, but that lapse of scientific grounding may not matter to young readers. They most likely will enjoy the unintentional mischief young Zagora plants herself in while exploring the inner and outer workings of Morocco. Brodien-Jones' lush and aromatic descriptions of the people, markets, and streets of Morocco (Marrakesh in particular) fully demonstrate her own captivation with the city and its mysteries. In this lens, it does offer a beautiful entry into another culture, although at times veers dangerously into fully exoticizing rather than bringing a sense of familiarity and universality to her Moroccan characters. Still, the focus lies squarely on Zagora, and any faults one may find in the plot or other characters can be assuaged somewhat by the creation of a spunky and thoughtful young female protagonist. Her youthful zest and frenetic energy lead her to follow her impulses first and thoughts later, but over the course of the story she learns the value of her family members and friends as well as herself, and finally gains enough control to help solve the mystery. That this wild adventure story circles around the important features of this young girl make the story appealing on so many levels.

Though the climax gets lost in the immense imagery Brodien-Jones demands us to visualize, it does not lose its heart for a step. Astronomy, myth, and science feature prominently in the story, making this both a magical ride as well as a treat for the intellect. A worthy read for some heartfelt, spunky fun.

Reviewed by Alya Hameed

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