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Operation Red Jericho

Style: Good

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive

In Brief: Slightly larger-than-life heroes and villains; a broad cultural sweep to the front and backstories; unremarked equality of men and women; courage and steadfastness among (heroic) allies. Impetuous if well-intentioned disobedience and deception by the children.

Cover of Operation Red Jericho

Author: Joshua Mowll

Series: Guild of Specialists

Publisher: Walker

Published in: 2005

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: Early 20th C

Setting: Shanghai / South China Sea

Genres:  AdventureFriendshipHistorical


Characters:

  • Becca McKenzie is a capable 15-year-old, intelligent and courageous, well-versed in fencing and sensitive to music. With her brother, she is affected by the disappearance of their parents on an expedition and will overcome almost any scruple if there's a chance of finding them.
  • Doug McKenzie is Becca's brother, two years, younger. His inquisitiveness has led him to acquire an eclectic knowledge. As opposed to his sister he is relatively careless of his appearance and hygiene.
  • Fitzroy McKenzie, the children's uncle, is captain of the research boat Expedient. Competent in every situation, he treats the children fairly but firmly.
  • Sheng-Fat is a half-caste Warlord with a pirate empire. Ruthless and cruel, he has a necklace made of the finger bones of his captives.

Synopsis:

Becca & Doug McKenzie become involved with the Honourable Guild of Specialists when their parents disappear, leaving them in the care or their uncle, captain of the research boat _Expedient_. 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.

Notes:

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 ancient Chinese and Holbein's “The Ambassadors”, 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, to whom he loses his finger, 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. (Except for the young twins Xu & Xi, who are just as full of banter as you'd expect).

All this is not to detract from the book's worth; rather, it highlights the kind of story it is. The heroes are not their eternally self-doubting modern counterparts. Nor are they gung-ho mercenaries. It's the kind of story where there's a back-story which informs the front-story every so often. A little like Sherlock Holmes where the main character always knows something which Watson (and therefore the reader) doesn't.

Obviously, the most significant characters are Becca & Doug and their uncle Fitzroy, the Captain of the Expedient. The youngsters — Becca is 15, Doug 13 — are nicely drawn for the most part. Here, as in other aspects of the book, there's an unstated equality. Becca and Doug are each talented, Doug with inquisitiveness and amicability, Becca with swordsmanship and a little more commonsense. Elsewhere, their parents have gone on an expedition together, while the Sujing fighters are almost indistinguishable one from another.

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.

Themes:

  • Ancient knowledge
  • Shanghai in the days of the International Settlement

At the sound of their voices, ransom prisoners had begun to stir behind their locked doors. With horror, Doug saw roughly bandaged hands reach out through the bars and heard plaintive whispers of “Let us out!” and “Put us out of our misery”. All were missing their little fingers.

“Becca!” shouted Doug. “Becca, are you here?” He ran along trying each of the doors, but there was no answer. “She must be on the surface still.” He was in despair. “We have to find her!”

Saturday 28th October 2006