Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) When a mysterious envelope arrives for Jake Ransom, he and his older sister, Kady, are plunged into a gripping chain of events. An artifact found by their parents—on the expedition from which they never returned—leads Jake and Kady to a strange world inhabited by a peculiar mix of long-lost civilizations, a world that may hold the key to their parents' disappearance.
But even as they enter the gate to this extraordinary place, savage grackyls soar across the sky, diving to attack. Jake's new friends, the pretty Mayan girl Marika and the Roman Pindor, say the grackyls were created by an evil alchemist—the Skull King. And as Jake struggles to find a way home, it becomes obvious that what the Skull King wants most is Jake and Kady—dead or alive.
Thoughts: I was wary of this book right from the get-go. The prologue was a rather clunky attempt at action and suspense, which didn't give me much hope for the rest of the book. Then I read further and found out that the main character was yet another one of those too-smart and too-misunderstood genius boys, the kind that can do no wrong without learning something profound from the experience, the kind disliked even by his teachers for his awesome intellect.
It's painfully obvious that this book was not intended to be read females. The female characters exist as pretty shallow archetypes. The love interest (or "like" interest, as we are talking about pre-teen characters) is there to be pretty and admired and sometimes make a helpful comment or two. Jake's sister Kady is a shallow and temperamental girl who has little on her mind but looking pretty and dating popular boys. Even if you invoke Suspension of Disbelief for the scene where Kady's shown to have skills at fancy swordwork (because swordword is totally the same as her cheerleader baton routine), any potential coolness is drained away by the new few paragraphs showing that Kady's somewhat proud of herself for starting new fashion trends amongst the Viking girls. Eventually, she teaches the proud warriors-in-training how to cheerlead.
No, I'm not joking. They learn to cheerlead, which provides enough distraction so that Jake can sneak away and go be the big hero and work on saving the day.
Like your books to have diverse and strong female characters? Then stay far far away from Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow.
I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps the author has a thing against women, or perhaps he naively thought that girls wouldn't possibly be interested in adventure stories and so didn't think there was any point in putting positive female characters in. Bach'uuk, the overlooked little Neanderthal slave boy whom nobody pays attention to, got more positive page time than any female other than Marika. Feel sorry for the little boy, but don't give a toss about the girls, because they're icky and pointless.
I feel compelled to say something positive about this book, however, and if it has any saving grace, it's in the pacing. The writing flows smoothly, and it can pull readers along, making them want to see what happens next, what event is just around the next corner. Rollins also, admittedly, had a knack for addressing questions that I mentally formed as I was reading. Why was a t-rex chasing a Mayan girl and a Roman boy? Why are so many diverse cultures living in one tiny area without integrating and mixing their respective cultures despite many generations having passed? Why is everyone able to understand everyone else's speech? Some authors may have just hand-waved these issues, thinking perhaps that the intended audience wouldn't know enough to even realise the problems, but Rollins actually addressed the questions head-on. The explanations may have been too simplistic for real life, but for a kids' book, they were sufficient.
I also keep trying to tell myself that the plot twists would have been sufficient for a kids' book too, even though none of them particularly surprised me. Sometimes it felt like Rollins was trying to pull a J K Rowling with his plot, and not quite managing. The reveal of the bad guy here felt like the reveal of the bad guy in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Bait-and-switch, connection to the underling, the minion's pain... I swear I was waiting for the power of love to give Jake the power of a burning touch no evil can stand...
Ultimately, I'd recommend passing over this book. If you feel like borrowing it from a library some day, or reading it while it's still free on HarperCollins, go ahead, but I wouldn't recommend that anybody actually spend money on this thing.