The Seven Keys of Balabad
by Paul Haven
Recommended Ages: 11+
Oliver Finch is an all-American boy who likes wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt, and a New York Yankees baseball cap. But thanks to his father's career as a journalist and his mother's interest in archaeology, he finds himself living so far from Yankee Stadium that, in his time zone, the night games start at 5:00 the next morning. The country is Balabad, somewhere between Pakistan and Afghanistan: a country of mountains, deserts, and plains, inhabited by hundreds of often-warring tribes who speak as many strange, complex languages, none of which Oliver speaks. Between terms at the International School, he has nothing to do except hang around with his only friend: a Baladi boy named Zee, whose rich parents raised him in London. They spend most of their time visiting a friendly carpet salesman, and listening to Mr. Haji tell tall tales about his illustrious ancestors. It promises to be a hot, tedious holiday.
But then the boys get caught up in a mystery involving the disappearance of the country's culture minister, the theft of a priceless carpet, and a series of interconnected burglaries around the globe. When Mr. Haji himself is kidnapped, the armchair detectives find themselves on a serious mission. Zee realizes that his father has a secret, and it has something to do with a secret organization called the Brotherhood of Arachosia. Joined by the beautiful daughter of a gigantic one-eyed warrior, the boys follow a trail of clues to the city's dangerous Thieves' Market, the posh Mandabak Hotel, and finally the ruins of the capital city's royal palace. There they find the villain waiting to spring a trap on them. For the three children carry with them the final piece to the puzzle of a national treasure that has lain hidden for five hundred years.
Oliver, Zee, and Alamai are mostly playing at being detectives, so they are surprised to find what a dangerous game it is. If they only knew, beforehand, the history of how and why King Agamon's treasure came to be sealed by seven massive iron keys, they might be better prepared for the seriousness that awaits them. On the other hand, their courage and concern for Mr. Haji could make them national heroes... provided the grown-ups show up on time to save them. In the meantime, they bring an attractive innocence to an otherwise dark, mysterious, spooky adventure. And their shared risks cement a friendship that could change Oliver's miserable foreign exile into a colorful experience, an experience to relish.
Paul Haven, the author of Two Hot Dogs with Everything, is an Associated Press foreign reporter (similar, I suppose, to Oliver's dad). His inspiration for this book came from his experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He seems to be having an interesting life. I look forward to seeing what he creates next.