You know, I think I must have had this book for about a decade. Ethan Erway was one of the authors selling his books at the first events I appeared at and I think I bought this one before that, at a Phoenix Comicon shortly after it moved to Phoenix, drawn in by the cover and sold by the idea. It's therefore a prime candidate to check out as one of my monthly reviews of books written by Arizona authors, because I'm way overdue with it.
The good news is that I enjoyed it a great deal. It's a pulp adventure story, but written very specifically for and about kids. There are adults in this novel, some intriguing and others not so much, but they're never the focus of the story. It's all about Michael Belmont and his cohorts, who are not very old. I don't believe Erway tells us, probably very deliberately, exactly how old they are (if he did, I didn't note it down) but I got the impression that Michael is either young teenager or he's about to be, while his sister Abigail is a little younger. They live in Prescott, Arizona, but Michael's best friend, Liam MacDonald, lives in a bona fide Scottish castle, outside a village called Tarbet, a real place on the western shores of Loch Lomond.
"Wouldn't that be cool!", I hear you saying, and Erway's relish for this sort of unrealistic but undeniably cool detail is the main reason why this worked for me. It feels in many ways like a novel written by a British author in the early decades of the last century, aided by the odd approach to have none of these kids see technology as inherent to their ability to live their lives. I don't think they even have phones and their instincts are more to go outside and investigate the fairy ring up the hillside than to sit down and watch YouTube or play a video game. They even read, for goodness sakes, and, while I enjoyed the nostalgic thrill of this, it may make it feel anachronistic to some readers.
Certainly we're not in 1920 because the kids get more places by plane than they do by carthey sure do fly a lot!and the numerous pop culture references littered throughout the book like Easter eggs on a DVD aren't from silent movies. Liam gets called a "scruffy little nerf-herder" at one point, by a Scottish fairy of all things, who's apparently seen 'Star Wars', and the collection on display in a concealed wing of McGinty Castle has an Infinity gauntlet, though it's not called that here, of course. Kudos for that, by the way, given that this came out in 2011, so before 'The Avengers', let alone 'Avengers: Infinity War', so it's a comic book reference rather than a film one. That in itself echoes my previous paragraph, though there's a Tobor here too.
And I just let slip another unrealistic but undeniably cool detail! Not only does Liam live in a Scottish castle, but it has its very own secret wing accessed by a secret corridor and a collection of really cool stuff for these kids to discover and explore, while out in the countryside around the castle is a frolic of fairies in a fairy grove and a... but, no, I'm getting ahead of myself. Much of the joy here is in figuring out what other unrealistic but undeniably cool detail Erway is going to slip in a chapter or two from now before the kids do, so I'm not going to spoil any more of those surprises.
Of course, given the title of the book and the beautiful cover art by Steph Roman, we know we're not going to be exploring Scotland with the kids for long and they're going to end up catching a plane over to Egypt where their parents are. Here I should explain that Michael’s and Abby's father is a cultural anthropologist and their mother is an archaeologist. Liam's father is a historian who buys and sells artifacts and was introduced to the Belmont family by Michael's Uncle Link, who owns an antique store in Sedona and is clearly something more than that too, from the moment he shows up in the story.
The spark for the Egyptian story, though, is Liam's great uncle Shamus, an adventurous spirit who managed to vanish without a trace seventeen years earlier. He was in Egypt, helping to map a necropolis being excavated in the desert west of Edfu, as an expert in archaeological cartography, when it was closed down following a set of mysterious deaths. He's believed to have snuck back in and somehow died inside the necropolis, though his body was never found. Now the Egyptian government is opening it back up again and the Belmonts are going to work there, leaving the kids with Liam's family at McGinty Castle.
But, you will, no doubt, be shocked to discover that they stumble onto things in Scotland that have a direct bearing on what's going on in Egypt and are gradually trawled into the heart of the mystery of which the adults seem to be blissfully unawareor at least notably dismissive of, because, hey, they're scientists and they're not going to fall for a story that sounds like it could have been a 'Scooby Doo' episode. And so it falls to the kids to solve the case and save the day, while continuing to discover new unrealistic but undeniably cool details. This novel may not stand up to much analysis but it's a heck of a lot of fun and I wish I'd have been able to read this at the age of seven or eight. Had I done so, it would surely have become a favourite.
Of course, I'm not a seven- or eight-year-old kid now, so it's easy to see past the wonders that Erway obviously enjoys hurling our way and find the flaws. In fact, some are pretty obvious when opening the cover, including design choices because this is yet another self-published Arizona novel and Erway makes some of the usual mistakes. For a start, the text isn't justified, though the layout is admittedly neat and tidy, with a good font, decent line spacing and appropriate indents. There's almost no use of smart quotes, though they do creep in at points, and ALL EMPHASIS IS MADE THROUGH USE OF CAPITALS, which is just obnoxious. Of course, given the subject matter, I guess I can forgive Erway for using Papyrus for his headers and chapter titles but I hope he wouldn't be that clichéd today. There are multiple editions, so I'd hope he fixed the other things raised in this paragraph too.
Delving into content, there are some overt plot conveniences but no more than you'd expect in an adventure novel for kids. My only real moment of concern arrived as the story started to explain what the Egyptian gods actually were because, while it’s an interesting idea, it's also a problematic one for cultural reasons. It never becomes an actual problem here, but it could well do as the series runs on, if it keeps them in focus. Book two is called 'Michael Belmont and the Heir of Van Helsing', the famous vampire hunter being mentioned here if not actually present as a character. Then it's 'Michael Belmont and the Curse of the Thunderbird', so it seems that Erway is moving between cultures, which is easy to do when your characters fly as much as these.
To sum up, I have to say that I had a blast with this. I'd happily recommend it to any kid with a nascent sense of adventure, because it nails that mindset wonderfully. The older that kid gets, the less they're going to feel an aura of wonder infused into the story, but an older reader who read this sort of material when they were kids should get a strong whiff of nostalgia from it. It's frankly riddled with of undeniably cool things and they're a lot more important to any kid or any adult remembering when they were any kid than the unrealistic side. It runs three hundred pages and, when I turned the last one, I wanted to keep on going into book two. If there's a better recommendation than that, I don't know what it would be. ~~ Hal C F Astell