Stars: 3 out of 5.
I love pirate adventures. I’ve read all the classics back when I was a little girl, starting with Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne and the Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. So when I got asked to read Johnny Shipwreck in exchange for an honest review, I jumped at the occasion. After all, it has all the elements I love: pirates, a mystery, a hidden treasure and lots of adventures. And it even starts like all good adventures should – with a message in a bottle. Well, in an old lantern in this case…
All in all, I enjoyed this book. It had a good balance of action and sleuthing. The narrative alternates between 1950, when Johnny Socko finds a strange message and begins his search for the mysterious Castillo del Mar, and the 1700s, when Titus, first mate on the English ship Queen Anne, has his fateful encounter with a pirate and his daughter.
The authors managed to capture the feel of most pirate adventure novels – the slow unraveling of the mystery that drives the reader along with the protagonists in the hunt for the next clue. It was also fun to watch the conclusions Johnny and his crew come up with, and then read how it really happened in the chapters set back in the 1700s. Sometimes Johnny got it right, but sometimes he fell short of the truth.
So by now you are probably wondering why I gave this book only 3 stars if I liked it so much? Well, there were several problems that dampened my enjoyment considerably, that’s why.
First of all, the authors tried to write this book in Subjective Third Person Omniscient point of view. I get it. Most of the pirate adventure books back in the days were written in that POV, so they probably wanted to keep that feeling in their story as well. Problem is, omniscient is extremely hard to do well, especially subjective where the narrator (and the reader) knows everything, even the characters’ thoughts and feelings. For it to work, the narrator needs to have a strong voice, and he cannot be one of the participants.
Unfortunately, that’s where this book falls short. There is no distinct narrator to tell us this story, just a jumbled mess of POVs from all the other characters that switch back and forth several times in the same scene. That’s called “head hopping,” and I found it extremely confusing and irritating.
My second gripe with this book is that Johnny, the boy wonder and all-star sleuth, is a bit too perfect. He solves all the mysteries, he gets all the answers, he fights off the bad guys, and he does all that seemingly effortlessly. This kills a lot of the suspense, because I was never worried for Johnny’s life and well-being. Since he had all the answers, it was clear that nothing bad could happen to him, no matter how dire the situation. Had the authors made him a little bit more fallible, let him make some mistakes and reap the consequences, his adventures would have had a bigger impact and kept me on the edge of my seat.
And my final complaint: I think the whole mystical / magical element in this book was entirely unnecessary. It was all good and dandy while it was just hinted upon, because it could or could not have been the truth, but the final confrontation with the Crimson Pirazzo felt alien to this story, like it had been included as an afterthought. And it really didn’t add anything to the story itself. Just escaping from Castillo del Mar in one piece would have been a worthy enough conclusion.
But despite those shortcomings, I think Johnny Shipwreck is a good book. I would definitely recommend it even to reawaken that feeling of adventure and wonder we used to get when we opened a pirate book when we were kids.