Middleworld, by J. & P. Voelkel (Egmont, 2010, upperish middle grade on up, 398 pages in ARC form). Book 1 of The Jaguar Stones.
Strangely, playing computer games at home in Boston had not prepared 14 year-old Max very well for his encounter with the Mayan god of the dead. And, more generally, his rather lazy attitude toward life had not equipped him for jungle adventure, politeness when encountering different foods and customs, and a stiff upper lip. Let alone being a hero.
But when Max is suddenly sent off to the tiny Central American country of San Xavier, where his parents are leading an archaeological dig, he is forced to become one. Because his parents have gone missing, the clock on the Mayan doomsday calender is ticking down, and the incredible power of the five jaguar stones of the ancient Mayan kings might be about to fall into the hands of someone really, really evil.
Fortunately for Max, it's not up to him to defeat the villain, or even survive the jungle on his own. When he leaves his uncle's house in the city to set off on the trail of a mysterious thief, he meets Lola, a brave and resourceful Mayan girl. She takes him in hand and teaches him a few lessons in courage and tenacity (and manners). These are lessons that will stand him in good stead when he enters the Black Pyramid of Death, home of the un-dead Demon Warriors of Ixibalba (although the Demon Warriors, happily for the characters, don't actually come to zombified life).
Hmm. I'm not entirely satisfied with my plot summary--there are lots of other characters and
Mayan mythological and historical elements and two very important Howler monkeys...In a nutshell, it's a fantastically detailed and somewhat complicated/over-the-top adventure with gods and long dead Mayan royalty and lost treasure and bad guys and a tough beautiful girl and a young teenage boy who has a lot to learn. And it's funny--I chuckled out loud several times.
"Once there was the terrible sound of rock scraping on rubber as they got wedged under a particularly low overhang. Then they had to try not to scream and calmly maneuver themselves to the left or the right, to find a place where the raft could squeeze through. (By unspoken agreement, Max did the trying not to scream, while Lola did the calm maneuvering.)" (Page 135 of ARC)
I liked Lola lots and lots! And by the end of the book, Max was pretty engaging too (although he's something of a brat for the first half).
The plot is light-hearted, but with scary bits. It was taken to very wild extremes, yet the fantastical, for the most part, avoided the twin traps of jungle-treasure-adventure-stereotype and farce. That being said, although I very, very, much enjoyed the two teenagers travelling though the jungle part of the story, I didn't enjoy the Mayan magical showdown part quite as well--it was just a bit too much! (Howler monkey flatulence, for instance, played a role in the defeat of the bad guys).
I did not, however, let that minor failure of connection between me and the book spoil my enjoyment of it. It was a fun, fast read that I'd happily recommend to older middle-grade kids on up. It also gets major points from me for its matter-of-fact inclusion of Maya's cultural background. Nestled into the wild storytelling are some rather valuable educational elements, which I thought the authors did a good job including without being didactic.
This is the first of series, so there are loose ends...but even if everything had been tidied up, I'd still be glad to read another Lola and Max adventure!
(diclaimer: ARC received from the publisher)