The short: 3/5 ✦. A lengthy, somewhat dense book that mostly captures the aesthetic of early 20th century literature but fails in the most important aspect: heart.
This book wasn’t at all what I expected, and that’s both a good and bad thing.
First, the physical aspects. It really is a gorgeous book. You open up the cover, and the gently aged appearance of the thin pages do look like a novel from the 1910s. And the illustrations, though sparse, are lush and old-fashioned and beautiful. The most unique (and modern) aspect, however, is the graphic novel-esque comics within. There is very little regular dialogue in A Passage to Shambhala (“he said,” “she said,” etc.). It all is mostly contained in these panels with the characters talking in speech bubbles, with a few action sequences tossed in. This is a good thing because the rest of the text is very . . . authentic.
By that, I mean near-perfect 1900s speech, of the proper excessive tone you might find in a Jules Verne novel. Whoever did the lion’s share of the writing (I suspect Jon Baird) definitely did their homework. References to countries and inventions and schools of thought are accurate (as far as I can tell), and the prose is on-point. I genuinely think that if I didn’t know better, I’d’ve thought this was actually from the World War I era. Well, besides the sexy stuff. This isn’t a children’s book, regardless of what you might think from the cover. The sexual content and violence is relatively tame, but it’s in the adult genre for being complex, though a well-read teenager should be able to make their way through this. Unfortunately, along with old-timey speak comes the reality that this book tends to be dense and rather boring. Any English or History major will know this feel.
And there’s a mark against its being accurate: racism. It’s one thing to say that white people, especially back then, were distrustful of foreigners. It’s quite another to use actual derogatory language to describe the physical and cultural characteristics of people of color. I don’t care if this was “written” by an ignorant rich fool traveling through an unknown territory; in reality, it was written in 2015, and this is inexcusable – and hurtful. I almost abandoned the book then and there but decided to keep going in hopes it wasn’t repeated. Luckily, this turned out to be correct, though the bitter taste in my mouth lingered.
Anyway, this is all mostly aesthetics; what about the story itself? Again, this is where A Passage to Shambhala falters. It takes awhile for the plot to get going, at least so we, the audience, understand what’s going on. I’ll avoid spoilers, but in short, there is a mission to find Shambhala, a city that has a tendency to disappear and then reappear halfway across the globe. There is an omniscient narrator, but we also see the perspectives of Arthur Ogden, one of the “lucky” few to have come across the mysterious city, and Mr. Sloane, an equally mysterious man with many agendas. Other characters include Miss Harrow, an actress turned explorer; Bethram, a very special boy; Corporeal Buchen, a young soldier who gets caught up in the adventure; and Major John Ogden, Arthur’s brother and leader of his “dragoons,” who are basically ex-military pirates. I don’t remember hardly any of their names, but the most prominent are Mr. Renton (?), a boy entirely too sassy by half; Mr. P– (?), the Major’s Sikh adviser; and Mr. Giant (alright, I forgot all their names). In any case, there’s a lot of characters, and it’s hard to keep track of who is who. This maybe wouldn’t matter so much if I cared more about them, but the narration is very detached, as per the style of the late 1800s/early 1900s, and so I rather looked forward to the comic panels, for at least I could have a visual of what was going on.
All in all, it’s a fascinating book, if perhaps too ambitious. I also don’t quite understand Kevin Costner’s role in this, as it seems to be almost entirely Jon Baird’s writing, and Costner isn’t even mentioned in the acknowledgments. So there’s that, but I only know Costner from Field of Dreams, so though his name wasn’t an impetus for me to pick up the book in the first place, it was why it was featured in Entertainment Weekly and how I learned of it. Anyway, I’m not sure that I’d recommend it beyond general interest in a modern take on an old writing style, and appreciation for the beautiful artwork.
Header image: The Passage of Shambhala (The Explorers Guild) by Jon Baird, Kevin Costner, and Rick Ross, published October 20th 2015 by Atria Books.