A mythical Ethiopian empire in space….a deadly enemy that has almost defeated it…a boy who might be its last hope…this is what you will find in Last Gate of the Emperor, by Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen (middle grade, May 4th 2021, Scholastic).
Yared and his uncle have moved around the city of Addis Prime more often than he really remembers, never with enough money to live comfortably, and so his life has been a little lonely–his only friend is a mechanical lioness, Besa, with no head for heights. Addis Prime has a lot of rules, and lots of drones to enforce them, but it also has, for Yared, a great redeeming feature–a fantastical, and illicit, augmented reality game– The Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk. If he can win the next big game, and his chances are good, he’ll get enough money to pay his school bills…
But the rules of this game are different. He has to use his real name for the first time, and instead of playing solo, everyone has to have a partner. Yared is not happy to be paired with his greatest rival, a girl known as the Ibis…how can he beat her if he has to join her?
These concerns, though, soon fade to total insignificance when the city is attacked. Yared’s uncle has told him countless stories of a fearsome monster created for a rebellion against the ancient ruling power at the center of the galaxy. Now that monster, and the enemy forces commanding it, have disrupted his game…and his life.
Yared’s old life was based on a lie, and now he must frantically try to find out the truth of who his enemies are, and what role he’s destined for in this war that has come to his city. Together with the Ibis, who’s thrown her lot in with him, and with his faithful lion guardian, he journeys to the heart of the old empire, and then back to his city, to save it.
It’s a wild and wonderful great game of a setting; a vibrant chaos of extraordinary technology and fearsome foes. Lots of touches of Ethiopian culture (including tasty food) add to the rich sensory wealth of this world. Those who love stories that propel them from one excitement to the next will enjoy it lots. Kids who love game battles will be hooked especially quickly! (I myself loved how the obelisk hunting game actually was designed with a purpose).
For the first two thirds of the book, though, I felt somewhat disconnected from the story. Partly this was because Yared had been thrown into a cataclysmic situation, and had little agency to shape the course of events, and neither he, nor the reader (me) fully understood what was happening.
On top of that (which is simply a reading preference, and not a critique of the book), I was somewhat disappointed with the character side of things. Yared is, rather understandably, living moment to moment, and doesn’t have much time to reflect on things, (and one gets the sense that he a sort of sass and smart answer kid of kid in any event, not given to introspection), and being on the run there were few quiet bits to the story that could have shows the reader more depth of personality. Fortunately, the final third of the book was great on all counts, and Yared really comes into his own as both hero and person.
My disappointment with the Ibis, however, was never quite dispelled. She is pretty much a stereotype of the kick-ass girl, a fine stereotype, but not enough to make her a person to care much about. She says very little, and we never even learn her name.
But though it wasn’t the perfect book for me, I’m absolutely certain there are plenty of young readers who will love it for the high tech adventures and unlikely and indefatigable young hero! It’s a stand-alone story, though there’s set up at the end for more adventure…
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher