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Choose Your Own Adventure (1979-1998)
Mitchell, Judith (interior)
Captive! is that rare Choose Your Own Adventure book which feels more like an immersive role-playing game than just a story that occasionally allows you to make decisions. It offers a glimpse at the full glorious potential of the gamebook genre. You are apprenticed to Count Renzo Brizzi in Tuscany, Italy, A.D. 1296. Renzo has sent you to Rome to request of Pope Boniface VIII that the count be allowed to form his own official religious organization. Two weeks have gone by and the pope has yet to summon you, but your wait is interrupted one morning when a soldier approaches with a message. He says the pope's chamberlain, Cardinal Rossi, wants to speak with you on a matter of grave importance, but do you trust this soldier? Are you confident he is who he claims to be?
You aren't yet aware of it, but mortal danger surrounds you. Armed foes are everywhere, watching and waiting to pounce if you stray from the soldier's side en route to meeting Cardinal Rossi at the palazzo. The cardinal has bad news for you: Count Renzo has been abducted on orders from the duke of Genoa. The duke sent a ransom letter to Giovanna Brizzi, the count's little sister, offering to trade Renzo's life for the secret of making gunpowder as described in Marco Polo's writings. A friend of Renzo's, Marco Polo recently returned from Cathay (aka China) with some outrageous adventure tales and cultural innovations, including a food known as "pasta" and a chemical recipe for an explosive substance called gunpowder. Cardinal Rossi wants to send you, Giovanna, and Bruno—the soldier who brought you here—to infiltrate the monastery of Trevi, the massive old building where Count Renzo is being held. You aren't a trained spy or fighter, but who else would risk their life for the count?
Quickly it becomes clear there are those who don't wish to see you make it to Trevi. The wide, swift-moving Tiber River is difficult enough to traverse, but is much more so if your hired boatman turns out to be working for the duke of Genoa. He could attempt to sink your boat, or steer you on a course toward a group of outlaws poised for an ambush. Reaching safety at the monastery of Trevi is an adventure in itself, but the intrigue really begins once you, Giovanna, and Bruno enter this building where Count Renzo is being held captive.
As quiet, polite monks mill about the corridors, Father Domenico, the abbot, tells you his monastery has lately received more visitors than usual. Among them is an elderly traveler from Cathay named Cipango, and an incoherent man brought in by two others. Strangely, this man vanished from the monastery soon after arriving. Your pulse quickens as you surmise it was Count Renzo, probably in a drugged stupor. You're on the right track! But where did his kidnappers hide him? After settling into your cell, you have some freedom to search the monastery, but be cautious: the duke of Genoa has at least one spy among the monks. This interloper may try to poison your food, or lure you away from Bruno so he can capture and torture you. Who among the monks can you trust? Father Ludovico, the first man to greet you at Trevi? Father Alfredo, the resident apothecary? These men may be innocent servants of God, or imposters guilty of Count Renzo's abduction. Should you interview Father Alfredo about chemicals recently stolen from the apothecary, or see what you can learn from the kitchen workers? Do you sneak off on your own and explore the cold, dark labyrinth that is the monastery's catacombs? This is the most likely place Count Renzo is stashed, but without a proper guide you may be doomed the moment you step into the network of crude subterranean tunnels. And there are yet more options to investigate: the apiary, where an anonymous source tells you to meet him for information on the count's whereabouts; or the library, where a rare copy of Marco Polo's writings may contain the secret ingredients for gunpowder. Will you rescue Renzo on your own? Or should you team up with Cipango, who knows more than he's saying about the illegal activity at the monastery? A single bad decision can lead to one of many chilling, gruesome fates, but if you succeed, your quest to save the count will be rewarded more handsomely than you dare dream. Who knows what opportunities the upcoming fourteenth century holds for you?
This book barely misses out on being one of the top five or ten in the main Choose Your Own Adventure series. Rather than splintering into numerous short, unsatisfying paths based on your decisions, the main story is already set, and your choices simply dictate how you interact with it. What leads do you prioritize following up on at Trevi? If you stumble onto a haven of conspirators, do you challenge them by yourself or get help first? Should you bring along the cat, Jasper, who saves your life while on the road, or is there no time to waste on your mission to free Count Renzo? Small choices can be the difference between success or a dismal, haunting death in the catacombs. The story seems to move in levels, like a video game; if you don't have the right tools or knowledge before entering an advanced level, your doom is already sealed. If Captive! had just a bit more emotional involvement, or a few additional innovations, or a slightly more evocative atmosphere, I might call it a masterpiece. Sad to say, it's the only gamebook that Bill and Luann Hampton apparently ever wrote; they had real talent for the genre, and I'm left to wonder what might have been.
Captive! is an unusual, perhaps unique, entry in the CYOA series as there is only one good ending; all the others are deaths or abject failures. However, there are multiple paths to victory so it's not too difficult. The plot follows a kind of hourglass structure. The first half consists of a dangerous journey to the monastery where Count Renzo is being held. But his enemies know about your rescue mission and do their best to thwart you. There are many ways to fail but also many ways to succeed. If you complete the journey, the storylines converge when you arrive at the monastery, then branch out again as you look for clues to the count's whereabouts. The second half is a bit trickier to survive, but again there are multiple paths to success.
The unusual gameplay is only one attraction. The writing is pretty good and the setting is atypical for CYOA: medieval but with no fantasy elements like time travel, magic, or fairies. The monastery can be inviting or creepy depending on where you go. On the educational side, I learned a bit about Marco Polo and the ingredients of basic gunpowder. Judith Mitchell's illustrations are excellent, as usual. This book is a recommend.
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