Shell Game (Kingdom Keepers Book 5), the crew are celebrity guests on an inaugural sail of a new ship traveling from Florida to California via the Panama Canal. Their presence also means that a new DHI server is being unveiled that will have their hologram counterparts working the crowd on the cruise ship and on some of the shore excursions.
Prior to the trip, we learn that the Overtakers have been mounting an assault in Florida at the site of the main DHI headquarters. The Keepers have recruited various other kids, park employees and Disney characters to help in the battle but a vicious siege is going on and the keepers are hesitant to leave the battle in the hands of others. Still, they are the face of the DHI and it's their job to go on this cruise. Even more important, the Overtakers seem to be coincidentally planning something on the cruise. It seems obvious that they would be interested in the new DHI server outside of the core theme park areas but as the story gets going it's obvious that there may be something even more sinister going on.
The first portion of the book takes place in Florida and involves the Keepers making preparations to leave on the cruise securely prepared for whatever problems they may encounter. We learn that the the Overtakers have been recruiting their own forces. It seems that the Evil Queen (Snow White's queen) and Maleficent have been using their powers of "persuasion" (and magical spells) to entrance kids and adults to their cause. The Overtaker humans are usually recognized by their eerie green eyes though it is evident that there are others who are just following orders and may not even know that they are in the service of these wicked characters.
The story is generally pretty fun albeit a little convoluted and repetitive. It started off with some running through Epcot and other Florida parks as well as an exciting confrontation in the Typhoon Lagoon water park. The nostalgia that came from reading the descriptions of these parks was, as always, a lot of fun. Once the story moved to the cruise ship I was less familiar with the "real world" environment but cruise ships in general (even Disney ones) are fairly easy to imagine so I was able to envision the author's world fairly easily.
This book had a lot of twists and turns and intricate side plots. There were a bunch of new characters introduced and it was made very clear that we as readers should be unsure and uneasy as far as who we should really be trusting. Even within the group of five core Kingdom Keepers there seems to be a little contention in the ranks as the teenagers start acting suspiciously and blatantly mistrustful of each other. The DHI software has received an upgrade and there's a lot of reference to new abilities and changes but there's also the suspicion that maybe Disney is looking to "upgrade" to new actors as well since the kids are getting older. All in all there is a fair amount of suspicion and anxiety at the heart of the story.
My main complaint with the series still continues in this book...the interaction and involvement of true Disney characters is far too sparse. We finally have some of the Disney "hero" characters helping out but their appearances are very brief and limited. Most of the Disney "villain" scenes involve the kids spying on them and listening to the villains bicker or plot. When we finally do get a face-to-face confrontation with the villains, the pacing and dialog often feels rather forced and the end of the scene feels a bit anti-climatic. I know he needs to balance the plot by limiting any huge scenes with the full-scale Disney villains and heroes but I keep hoping that maybe a lower-scale hero or two will team up with the kids for the majority of the book and that they might duke it out with some classic Disney henchmen. There is just a lot of potential for fun encounters that I feel are being totally lost.
With regards to pacing and plotline, as I started to run out of pages, I worried that the author was going to pull a 'deus ex machina' and come up with some cheesy ending to wrap the story up. Instead, things just kept getting more and more messy. Finally, the last section of the book flashes back to a strange holographic "dream" sequence from the opening chapter and lets us know that this book is not going to tie the story up in a neat little bow. Far from it...we end up with the entire plot literally dangling in midair as we finish the last page.
As with the previous books, this book is not deep, amazing, "must-read" literature. It's a fun, light adventure romp aimed at tweens and teens. The plot is often ridiculous and the motivations are sometimes very cheesy. As a warning, the plot is getting heavier and darker as the books progress. We're not venturing into "adult novel" territory yet but the storyline and plot points are becoming more intricate and intense such that younger readers (earlier than middle grade) will likely not be as enamored as maybe they were with the first couple of books. This book, more than previous books, seemed to me to be trying harder to "get into the heads of teenage characters" in a way that felt a little heavy handed at times. Still, to Disney fans and those who enjoy a cheesy teenage adventure, this is a fun read.
Overall, this plot and pacing felt more convoluted and confusing than previous books and that left me a little off balance and unsettled. Still, the cliffhanger ending has me itching to read the next book. I admit that the book and series are not fully living up to my expectations or to what I think is their true potential but I'm still having a good time and want to see the end of this journey.
2.5 out of 5 stars
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