Adventure, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah by Allan Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah is a prehistoric adventure tale of young Zan, a tribal boy and twin brother, who earns his name “Zan-Gah” after fearlessly slaying a dangerous lioness and, in the eyes of the local clans, proves himself a hero and future leader. The book spans more than a year (or more, with flashbacks), in which time Zan goes on a journey to find his lost twin brother, who has been captured by a dangerous clan, more powerful than even the Wasp People, Zan’s clans bitterest and most deadly foes. Zan must survive on his own, fashioning new weapons and tools, and improvising for food and water sources. While the tale is interesting and Zan’s story fascinating to watch, much was packed into this little book, so that no time is spent truly developing the plot or characters, or allowing the story to breathe.

I actually quite enjoyed the different characters in this book. There is an appropriate depth to each, being a novel for young readers. Still, there is some complexity in the characters; descriptions of Dael’s psychological trauma, for instance, and Zan’s devotion to his family and burgeoning leadership skills, are well-done. The author is also careful to create a balance between the serious and the joyful. Chul and his wife, for instance, remind me almost of a prehistoric Lucy and Rickie of I Love Lucy. They balance out Zan’s rather sad parents. Also, the book includes representatives of the wise and the foolish, the brave and the spineless. The greatest achievement in this regard, though, is that each of the characters are simple enough to understand, but complex and independently imagined enough so as to avoid becoming caricatures or grotesques of an idea.

There is a bit of an imbalance, I think, in the reading level versus maturity level of the targeted audience. While the prose and structure are simple and easy to follow, there are varying degrees in vocabulary and thematic difficulty levels. Also, there are instances of rather adult elements and situations, such as the graphic slaying of a rival clan member. For this reason, I felt at times that the story itself would be more suited for the “Independent Reader,” in general, except that I would not encourage a child under the age of 12 to read it (due to some of the more difficult vocabulary and the graphic scenes). Still, for those young teenagers or middle schools who do read this book, it does have a decent balance of difficulty and maturity, with ease of reading, so that the young reader may be challenged without feeling “burnt out,” particularly if he/she is a developing reader.

There are certainly some larger issues at work, here – like the ideas of courage and bravery, and responsibility to duty and family. Physical and emotional pain, too, and their lingering effects on the injured and their loved ones are also presented fairly and with prominent importance. I enjoyed the inclusion of ideas like compromise, teamwork, and resourcefulness, all great elements for a young adult reader to encounter. Still, and unfortunately, due to the rushed pace (three days or a year might pass within one or two sentences), these elements did not have much time to develop or grow, or really implant themselves in the reader’s psyche, before the story moved on. The same could be said for the settings, which change quickly as Zan moves quickly across the landscape. It might be enough for a new reader, wetting the appetite without overwhelming, but adult and experienced readers, I think, would be underwhelmed, though appreciative of the attempt.  All-in-all, I believe young readers, particularly adventurous or historically/culturally-inquisitive young boys and girls, might have a great time with Zan’s adventure, but experienced or adult readers might find it difficult to connect with.

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