In City of the Beasts – a magic realism novel for young adults – Isabel Allende takes Alexander Cold, a fifteen-year-old Californian, on an adventure deep into the Amazon. While Alex’s mother is fighting cancer and his father is focussed on helping her, Alex accompanies his grandmother, a journalist, on an expedition to find the “Yeti of the Amazon,” a mysterious “Beast.” He and his grandmother travel with – among others – a famous anthropologist, a photographer, a doctor, a guide, and the guide’s twelve-year-old daughter, Nadia. Alex becomes very close to Nadia and they share the adventure of the “City of the Beasts” together.
The first part of the book shows the expedition making the trip from the outside world into the Amazon and chronicles Alex adapting to his new situation as the group goes deeper into areas where few outsiders have gone before. The second half follows Alex and Nadia as they meet the People of the Mist – a group of native Amazonians who, until now, have not had contact with outsiders. The shaman of the People of the Mist leads them to the City of the Beasts because he has had visions that Alex and Nadia will save his people. The Beasts are ten-foot-tall sloths who live for hundreds of years and are able to speak human language. They are considered “gods” by the People of the Mist, who count on the Beasts to be the keepers of their oral history. Both the Beasts and the People of the Mist are now threatened by the greed of outsiders and it is up to Alex and Nadia to come to their aid.
City of the Beasts is Chilean Isabel Allende’s first offering for young readers. Her previous books for adults include The House of Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Paula, and Daughter of Fortune. Allende dedicates the book to her three grandchildren – Alejandro, Andrea, and Nicole – which just happen to be the names of the main character and his two sisters.
Allende maintains a quick pace throughout the book, which should appeal to younger readers. She makes learning about another culture interesting: young readers will probably enjoy watching Alexander adapt to another culture – for instance, from being a fairly picky eater to being willing to try new, even unappealing foods. And she sheds light on how different other cultures can be from the reader’s own. By setting up this cross-cultural circumstance, Allende also makes it possible for readers to look at their own culture from another culture’s perspective.
Unfortunately, readers who are enjoying the adventure of the first part of the book may stumble when they get to the more magical second half of the book. Allende keeps the action moving, but there is a definite shift from realism to fantasy that some readers might find troubling. In addition, the second half of the book does not seem to flow as smoothly as the first half. Perhaps Allende is trying too hard to make her points.
Some reviewers have complained that the anthropologist in the book (Ludovic Leblanc) is portrayed too stereotypically. This reviewer was not troubled by his prima donna nature, but found his change of heart in the latter part of the book a bit abrupt. Other reviewers have also complained that Allende presents modern society as bad and native society as good, but, to disagree again, Allende focusses on the evils of greed rather than the evils of modernity.
City of the Beasts was named to the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review and Book Magazine’s list of best science fiction novels of 2002. Information about all of Isabel Allende’s books can be found on her website.