The Scorpions of Zahir, by Christine Brodien-Jones (Delacorte, July 2012, middle grade)
Eleven year old Zagora Pym is named for a town in Morocco...and dreams of one day following in the footsteps of her epigrapher father, travelling across the desert and making great archaeological discoveries. When a letter arrives from a famous archaeologist with whom her father used to work, a man believed to have died in the desert, Zagora's chance arrives. Her destination--the lost city of Zahir, abandoned and overrun by scorpions centuries ago, when a thief stole the fabulous Oryx stone from its blue pyramid.
Though her older brother Duncan (a chubby computer geek for whom Zagora has little use) is reluctant, Zagora is thrilled to be part of her father's journey to the lost city. But there is much danger waiting in Morocco. Zagora's father has the lost Oryx stone in his possession--and there are people who would kill for it. More catastrophic danger also looms (literally) large in the sky. The theft of the stone triggered a change in the orbit of a rouge planet, and it's now heading straight for earth. Then there are the prosaic, but very real, dangers of crossing the desert. And finally, once Zahir is reached, there's the little problem (not) of giant, mutant scorpions.
Exciting sounding, yes? And it is, although I must say that it requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief, both in terms of the practicalities (why the heck is Zagora's father taking them on a poorly planned desert crossing to begin with?), and in terms of the story--the rouge planet was a hard one for me to accept. I think that this issue of belief might well prove prohibitive for the older reader (it did for me), though the target audience of younger readers will doubtless be more accepting.
Slightly more problematic to me was a creeping element of the "white saviour" trope, in which outsiders to the indigenous culture come and save the day. Zagora happens to be gifted with desert sight (she sees ghosts of oryxes past), and ends up having the lead role to play in the predestined return of the stone. A tribal girl gets to help. More prosaically, her father has to translate the scared glyphs of the lost tribe of wise desert sages to them, because they have forgotten how to interpret them themselves.
Zagora, however, should appeal to adventure-loving girls, who might well enjoy her fantastical desert adventures. Anyone who is bothered by scorpions, however, should be warned--there are many of them. And they are very big.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publicist.