Becca (15) and Doug (13) McKenzie become involved with the Honourable Guild of Specialists when their parents disappear, leaving them in the care or their uncle. They learn of the existence of an ancient science, guarded since the time of Alexander the Great by the descendants of four of his cohorts in alliance with the Honourable Guild of Specialists. To regain control of a potent power source, a newly-discovered element, the Guild must defeat the cruel pirate and warlord Sheng-Fat and his allies.
Harking back to adventures of undiscovered science, vicious asiatic warlords and secret societies guarding knowledge kept hidden for centuries, this book presents the start of an adventure for two youngsters: a brother and sister in their early teens in the 1920s. While the back-story encompasses Alexander the Great and his conquest of India, the action all takes place in and around Shanghai at the time of the International Settlement.
The author, an artist himself, adopts the popular device of a set of manuscripts bequeathed to him by its now dead author, his mysterious great-aunt, the Becca of the story. With this device, he presents illustrations, diagrams and facsimiles, all of which serve to add an authentic feel, and to invigorate the reader’s interest. I’m no expert in the period, but the whole effect feels very realistic, and the author gives a convincing bibliography, some of which may even be real.
The characters are just slightly larger-than-life. Captain McKenzie carries a walking stick and bears an eye-patch, mute evidence of some previous encounter. He keeps a Bengal tiger as a pet, and is an expert swordsman and scientist as well as a seaman. Luc Chambois, a scientist held captive for months and drugged into submission by Sheng-Fat is nonethelss determined to assist in the recapture of the warlord’s fortress. Liberty da Vine, the daring aviatrix one always seems to meet in these stories, is remarkably chipper and defiant in the wake of her own finger-chopping mutilation. And as for Master Aa and the Sujing fighters, they’re just as strong and silent as you’d expect.
Obviously, the most significant characters are Becca, Doug and their uncle Fitzroy, the Captain of the Expedient. Becca and Doug are each talented, Doug with inquisitiveness and amicability, Becca with swordsmanship and a little more commonsense. The children know nothing of their parents’ involvement of the Honourable Guild of Specialists, and they are desperate to find out whatever they can about their disappearance. To this end, they break the bounds set by their uncle on board his ship, go out at night and break into cabin lockers to read secret papers. After a final, and rather public, forbidden expedition, their uncle has them to dinner in his cabin, where he reads a list of their transgressions and tells them in no uncertain terms that they will be sent back to San Francisco. The children accept this with little grace. But neither comes close to an apology. This last is my only real regret about the story’s attitude: their uncle recognises that it is primarily their parents’ disappearance which has caused the children’s rebelliousness, and deals fairly with them. But while they accept his verdict, they make no amends, and in fact later break their bounds again.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also editor of the Good-to-Read website.