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Invitation to a Feast

Series: Woodland Forest Chronicles #1
Author: Barnett, Jasan P.
Illustrator: Barnett, Peter
Release Date: November 5, 2007
ISBN: 0980345863 / 9780980345865
Length:200 sections
Number of Endings:10 (1 of these is victorious), plus failure by Jumpster being caught by wild animals.
User Summary: Follow and make the choices of the young rabbit, Jumpster Hopper, as he travels to the annual feast of the caretaker of Woodland Forest, the Noble Ranger. His journey is actually a test, which he must pass in order to be given entry to the feast when he arrives. The extra difficulty for Jumpster is that the arch-enemy of the Noble Ranger, the Dark Panther (and his followers) will be attempting to thwart Jumpster from passing the test.
Demian's Thoughts: The "talking animal" story is an inherently strange thing. Although often associated with children's fiction, the format can just as easily be applied to high fantasy or adult drama. This particular book feels like a little bit of all of these things. The style of the illustrations and the parts of the book dealing with everyday childhood life somehow made me think of Marc Brown's Arthur the Aardvark books. This blends a little strangely with the frequent focus on running from carnivores, which is closer to the much darker Watership Down. The backstory involving a good vs. evil struggle between the Noble Ranger and his nemesis, the Dark Panther, further complicates matters by adding a certain mythological flavor to the proceedings. Some people may well be put off by this combination of different tones, but you at least have to give the book credit for devising a distinctive formula.

Also distinctive is the game system here – the idea of replacing combat with chases makes a lot of sense for a book about an edible woodland creature, and I found it one of the most interesting features of the book. Outside of the occasional chase, though, gameplay is fairly straightforward. Many choices are directional (left or right, etc.); others have to do with choosing which distractions to explore and which to ignore. Ultimately, success depends on making a map and picking up the right objects along the way. Some events in the book are determined entirely by dice rolls, and bad luck at these points or in key chases can provide annoying setbacks, but the whole thing is short enough that it doesn't have time to become too frustrating. Indeed, if anything, the book's biggest problem is that its successful path is awfully short. I found it rather quickly and was left with a somewhat anticlimactic feeling. Still, it's a functional adventure, and given that it is aimed at relatively young readers, it makes a good introduction to the full game system style of gamebook.

The presentation of the book is respectable, though it has its flaws. I didn't spot any blatant typos or structural errors, though there were occasional moments of awkward language that might have been improved by a little more editing. The layout is attractive and easy to read, although the one section per page approach means there is a fairly significant amount of wasted whitespace. The artwork is marred by the fact that some of the characters look a little bit awkward... but the objects and environments behind those characters are very nicely rendered.

Of course, the big question here is whether or not the book is worth reading. For an adult reader, I can't recommend it too strongly – it's a pleasant enough diversion, but the simple language and constant well-meaning innocence of Jumpster Hopper make it feel a bit bland at times. It's possible that some children might feel talked down to because of this, but at the same time, the book's peculiar blend of tones might be just the right thing to spark a young imagination. Indeed, it's entirely possible that I might have really appreciated this when I was the right age, even if only on the basis of the somewhat complex but entirely solvable game design. There's room for improvement, but this is nonetheless a respectable start to the series, and I'll be interested to see how things develop from here.

More reviews by Demian

Special Thanks:Thanks to the author for the cover scan, summary and other details.
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