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The River of AdventureReview by Keith Robinson (June 23, 2005)
What a great end to the series! The setting and atmosphere is excellent, and I could easily imagine myself walking the dusty streets of the small villages by the river and standing in a crowd watching a snake charmer at work, or lounging about on the deck of the boat and sweltering in the heat. There's also such a strong sense of "watch your back" in this foreign country that you can't help being glad you're not there yourself. This is Enid Blyton at her best.
That's not to say it's the best book in the series, because I still think The Valley of Adventure is best. But I have to place River pretty high, perhaps third, after Valley and Island. It's a very tough series of books to place in order in preference, because the standard is so high throughout. But certain aspects lower the credibility of certain books—for instance overly-contrived situations like where Mrs Mannering had to conveniently go home in Ship; and where the plot seems to ramble and lose its way towards the middle of Sea; or when the details of a plot just aren't fully thought out, as when Philip is sent to jump from a helicopter in Mountain and the king simply goes off to bed without even bothering to wait around to find out if his magic wings worked; and of course I always roll my eyes at the silly, cardboard bad guys, who are routinely outwitted and beaten up by Jack and Philip, not to mention Kiki, who has the uncanny ability to frighten bad guys to death with her voice alone.
So what lets The River of Adventure down for me? Very little, actually. The opening scene was typically Blyton-ish, with the children getting over a severe bout of 'flu. They're due back at school very soon...but before they return their doctor tells them they must first recuperate on an extended holiday in some foreign country where its warm! Hurrah! I wish my mum had sent me off on holiday everytime I had a cold. But something that left me amazed and astonished was the fact that Bill kept the destination of the holiday a total secret from the children until they arrived, on the feeble basis that Kiki might hear the name of the place and repeat it out loud in public, thus potentially giving away their whereabouts. Oh, please! So, as Bill is supposedly on a secret mission to spy on someone, he keeps the destination secret throughout the entire trip...which is to say that the children arrived at the airport in London and checked in, waited in the departure lounge, boarded a large plane, flew for hours and hours with passengers all around them and stewardesses wandering about, then landed at a foreign airport and finally drove another couple of hours to their hotel...all without any clue as to where they were going! Bill eventually laughs and tells them they're in a place called Barira "some way from the borders of Syria." And that's all we get, folks!
By the way, it goes without saying that Jack took his parrot on the plane, "smuggled under his coat." Imagine those endless hours of travel, with a parrot as talkative as Kiki! And where did Kiki poop?
But other that those little nitpicks, I loved this book. Bill has taken the children and Mrs Cunningham along so he can "spy" on a character called Raya Uma, a known criminal who is clever at disguises. Naturally he is distinguishable by a scar, this time on his forearm. Actually, it's quite a surprise when Raya Uma first shows up and introduces himself; it's a bold move on his part, and is somehow totally different to anything any other bad guy has done in this series (at least that I can recall). This boosted the realism of Raya Uma's villainous character a little, I think. Of course, towards the end he reverts to the usual hopelessness and is foiled by a bunch of kids as per normal. :-D
As usual, Mrs Cunningham has a minor role, and if she weren't there on the river-launch with Bill and the children I doubt the story would have changed one iota. The only time she ever made a difference, I think, was when Oola came on board; she stopped Bill sending him off again.
Oola, a small boy, is "rescued" by Philip from an abusive snake charmer after Philip accuses the man of cruelty to animals; the bargua snakes used in the snake charming trick are deadly venomous and have had their mouths sewn shut. This is truly a horrible thing, but "necessary" to the trick—so when Oola pledges himself as Philip's servant for life, and presents him with a bargua that hasn't had its mouth sewn shut, you can imagine that everyone nearly jumps overboard. But this particular bargua has had its venom glands removed. (I tend not to interchange "venomous" and "poisonous" as I learned long ago that there's a distinction: venom or toxin is injected, while poison is absorbed or ingested.)
The children sail down what is called the River of Abencha (and which Philip neatly dubs as the River of Adventure) and have a marvellous time—until Bill and Mrs Cunningham are kidnapped by the nasty Raya Uma. The children narrowly escape being kidnapped themselves, and they set out to rescue the adults by heading off downstream to find the little town where they think they're being held captive. This leads to a very interesting scene where the river widens and then narrows again—only the river has actually split into three and the river-launch is sailing down the wrong fork! Tala, their native boat operator and guide, saves them from certain death as the river speeds up and becomes a thundering waterfall...Now this is what I call an adventure! Then, in true Enid Blyton style, they all find themselves (quite luckily) in the very place that Raya Uma is looking for—an old underground temple where long-lost treasure is lying about all over the place. Hurrah!
Much as I love the atmosphere Blyton creates underground in the old tunnels, as usual it's the comical antics of the bad guys that let things down a little. They're so easily spooked and intimidated by four children and a parrot—and, admittedly, a "deadly venomous snake" that Philip is carrying about in his pocket. I just can't believe the children could really prevent a treasure-hungry character like Raya Uma from coming down into the tunnels, and yet there appears to be a stalemate—with the children unable to come out and Raya Uma unable to come down. Still, things resolve in the end and everybody but the bad guy is happy.
I have a feeling Enid Blyton knew this was to be her last Adventure book. I don't know if it was supposed to be or not, but she ends the book with references to the children returning in a few years to see how the dig is coming along. This doesn't mean no more adventures can possibly follow, but somehow it seems to add a little finality to it all...Sometimes, at the end of movies based on true stories, there are snapshots of the characters later in life, with captions informing the audience how they turned out. The River of Adventure almost ends that way..."Philip and his friends returned to the River of Abencha five years later to view the fully-excavated temple. Today, Philip works at a nature reserve and is currently out standing in his field talking to dormice..."
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