The Egyptian adventure story is a very old tradition, going back centuries. Cries From the Lost Island by Kathleen O’Neal Gear is a contemporary example of such storytelling. It is also a tale that manages for much of the text to straddle the question of “Magic or Mundane?” fairly well, though the fact it was published by a celebrated SFF firm like DAW makes the reader automatically lean towards the more supernatural explanations.
Our main characters include a young man named Hal, who has an interest in ancient cultures. He is a quiet, slightly overweight boy who falls desperately in love at 16, as so many do. He acts very dramatic about many things, in a way that feels appropriate to a teenager. The point at which his behavior might be considered over the top even for that age is more than Justified by the emotional turmoil of the new situations he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the better bits of writing is the way the story depicts him simultaneously going to pieces and being relatively useful during a crisis situation. Such a combination seems contradictory if not handled well, but is far more common in day-to-day life than one might expect. Finding his girlfriend Cleo shot is dealt with extremely well, showing his reactions on both the practical and emotional level.
His best friend is a young man who likes to be called Roberto, although Robert is his legal name. He’s somewhat flamboyant, and yet very grunge, playing out as bisexual over the course of the story, although his primary target of sexuality is a somewhat older, and as such morally dubious for their interaction, woman. It is uncomfortable in a few ways, but mostly off screen and believable enough for a teenager at that point in his development. Roberto also has the amusing belief that he is capable of magic, an idea which the story never truly confirms or denies. His attempts to make school get called off for a day and his use of an alleged live spell are both mentioned jokingly, yet both events do come to pass to one degree or another.
Cleo is a traumatized young woman. She is also an immigrant who came to the United States from Egypt after military instability resulted in the deaths of her parents, leaving her in the care of an uncle. Cleo believes that she is a reincarnation of the more historically famous Cleopatra, and has an unusual but not quite impossible level of knowledge in relation to that period of history. While most adults clearly think the girl is unstable, the story paints her as slightly unsure of her own assertions at times. Cleo knows she is traumatized, and does occasionally wonder if that might be the cause of her beliefs. Still, she holds to them, and asks strange and often seemingly impossible favors of Hal.
The author chooses to name Cleo’s uncle James Moriarty. He has a doctorate and teaches at university. The fact that the book includes a Professor Moriarty and Holmes is not even referenced is a rather odd omission, since Star Trek gets brought up and Doctor Who is a running gag. Even if one assumes these are modern teens, the idea they would be unfamiliar with the antagonist of the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes series, at least, is head-scratch inducing. To his credit, this James Moriarty is an archaeologist rather than a mathematician, giving some differentiation.
His use in the book is clever, his behavior just ambiguous enough to keep the reader unsure of his exact motivations, though the reader cannot help but suspect that his name was chosen in no small part to evoke a certain degree of suspicion. This is certainly the effect, and his consistent attempts to get close to the boys can be seen as either protective or sinister depending upon what his motivations actually are.
Other secondary characters are rarely overly complex, moving in and out of the text as necessary and never revealing more to the reader than is needed for their place in the book. In some volumes this could be considered a noticeable weakness; however in this story it is a strength. The question of who killed Cleo and why, as well as the reason for certain attacks on the boys, remains difficult to interpret throughout the book, due in no small part to the author carefully giving out only so much information. The choice of a first-person narrative strengthens this device, as the story never deviates from information which Hal would possess. When an archaeological find is damaged, Hal does not know who is responsible and neither does the reader. Indeed Hal, who is injured around the same time, cannot even be sure that the same person is responsible for both the injury and the vandalism.
There is an argument to be made that Cleo was “fridged” by the text to motivate Hal. While her death is the motivating factor for the young man, the fact that her wishes and spiritual needs are the focus of his quest should most definitely be accounted for. Indeed, she remains a major presence within the book and continues to have a surprisingly large degree of agency.
The book has two love stories at its heart. The first is that between Hal and Cleo, two teenagers in love at the beginning of the book with multiple tragedies stacked upon them. There is also the romance between Cleopatra and Marc Antony, two ancient figures in love long before the book starts, who suffer multiple tragedies in succession. The parallels work better than expected, particularly thanks to a lack of reference to more overused and mostly inappropriate references such as Romeo and Juliet.
A 16 year old (Roberto) is having something of a romance with a college student. While this is not the most disgusting relationship in fiction, it could easily be off-putting. Hal and Roberto talk about the age issue in passing, just, and using protection is discussed repeatedly, giving at least something of a casually positive sexual message. The relationship between Cleo and Hal, by contrast, was clearly romantic but not especially problematic. Both seem to share interests, and care about each other on a level that is not strictly physical.
Kathleen O’Neal Gear has a great deal of experience in anthropology, and as a result her storytelling decisions related to both an Egyptian dig and the distant past both work very well. She avoids the mistake many expert authors make of spending paragraphs upon paragraphs explaining the details of her profession and instead leaves the information appearing as appropriate. The reader can only hope that further works are forthcoming from her.
Cries From the Lost City is a good story, although one which gives away certain elements of its narrative only through inference. Still, the text is constructed in a clever manner, keeping much from the reader throughout the text without ever feeling like it cheats. It is overall an easy enough book to recommend to anyone who enjoys an adventure story of this type.