The Conch Bearer, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (2003, Roaring Book Press, middle grade, 265 pages) is the latest addition to my collection of multiethnic middle grade fantasy and science fiction books. It's a fantasy set in India, that tells of a boy named Anand, who must restore a Magical Object (a mystical conch shell) to its proper place in a high and hidden valley where a community of wise men live in secret. Anand has been chosen to go on this journey by one of the wisest of this brotherhood--an old man with mystical powers. The old man and the boy, along with a street girl named Nisha (feisty and spirited) who insisted on intruding herself into the quest, set off for the high mountains, with Anand carrying the Conch Shell, whose magic he has been told is too dangerous for him to try to use himself.
But there is a bad, power-hungry enemy trying to get his own hands on the conch...an evil man with magical powers who will do anything to thwart Anand and his companions. When their mentor exhausts all his strength fending off an attack from this enemy, the two children are left on their own, to battle their way to their final destination...But as Anand travelled with the Conch Shell, it began to speak to him, and though it cannot guide him directly, it sets him on the path toward wisdom...(There's a much more detailed plot summary on Wikipedia, if you are curious).
So, it's not the most Original of plots. And aspects of it are a bit hard to swallow (a magical, sentient conch shell???), and I really didn't think the encounter with the bad Yeti tribe added much (that being said, I don't think Yetis in general ever add anything, the only exception being the one in Monsters Inc. I never liked Tintin in Tibet, for instance). However, there is a nice mongoose. I think mongooses add value every time. And I think I am too old and jaded and cynical to deal well with hidden valleys where wise brotherhoods live.
On the positive side, The Conch Bearer is smoothly written and fast-paced, and the two kids are interesting characters presented with interesting dilemmas, not just of the Daring Adventure sort, but the sort that require them to make ethical and moral decisions. The Indian setting of the story by default made book interesting to me, and Divakuruni does a fine job making its places and people (and its tasty food) come alive.
The net result is a book that will broaden the imaginative horizons of fantasy reading kids while staying within the confines of a familiar story-line. But I myself didn't find anything quite exciting enough here to make me want to recommend this one enthusiastically to grown-up readers of mg fantasy...
(And especially I wouldn't recommend the original hardcover, shown at right, because what the Heck were they thinking to stick a pair of blue eyes on it??????? It is also an unpleasing image in general; the more I stare at it, the more the mountains are looking like hair, with a green sweat band over the white kid's forehead. I wonder if this is what they meant to happen. The paperback cover is a little odd too, but at least conveys the fact that this book takes place in India).
That being said, I have read good things about the sequel, The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming...and so I shall seek that one out. I hope there is more Nisha in it, livening up the complacent world of the Brotherhood!