Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdom – Jamar J. Perry

Cameron and his best friends, Zion and Aliyah, are just getting out of elementary school for the summer. It’s raining. It doesn’t feel like summer. But it’s time for the weekend sleepover. Cameron and Zion have been friends since kindergarten, and have been doing this a long time, but it’s the first time Aliyah has been invited.

Cameron’s Grandma, who Zion also sees as his own Grandma, has been particularly concerned about Cameron’s safety. Not just since the death of his parents, but even more so over the last few months.

Also of note – the attic is completely off limits. As is the Book. Tales of a land called Chidani. A place of gods and magic.

The Book belongs to Cameron now, passed down from his mum, who got it from Grandma, and so on back down the line.

That’s the backstory, and you can make some pretty good guesses at where things go from here.

Perry makes sure very quickly that the character images we have are of black faces. Before non-black folk build our own image, and default it to white, we’re interrupted and told they are black. That’s good. No excuses.

Perry doesn’t draw things out – almost immediately, dread hits both Cameron and the reader. It’s on every page for us, even when Cameron has relaxed.

There’s a nice touch of Cameron being a Percy Jackson fan. It won’t stop the comparisons to those books, but it acknowledges them, and moves on. Then, it shows you something different.

Reading a book immersed in a culture that isn’t mine, always means some time spent searching concepts and words and phrases that I don’t know. Learning while I’m reading is great to be able to do, and Perry offers enough but not too much for younger minds.

Towards the beginning, there is a large chunk of exposition. It’s explained away as Cameron reciting what he was told by his mama, but it does sound rather like he’s swallowed a textbook. Still, it does give us the info we need before things really take off.

I can only begin to imagine (and that glimmer only comes via my own marginalisations – none of them with anything like the same background as black Americans, who can trace their line back to pre-slavery Africa) the feeling of entering a place where suddenly everyone looks like you. Where the language is as ancient as the history, and you recognise your own ancestry wherever you go.

I think black American kids would benefit from much more of this. Reminders of their powerful lineage, of their culture of caring – all for each other, everyone together as family. Perry does a great job of depicting this. All the way through, Cameron, Zion and Aliyah keep themselves together. As a team. It’s a regular refrain throughout the book.

Everything about Chidani feels like it tries very hard to be what Perry envisions an untouched and unchanged ancestral land should be. The layout is confusing in its scope and feels packed with undescribed things. This had the effect of leaving me unable to picture a lot of what was, rather than described, stated and then immediately moved on from.

Queerness is vaguely danced around a few times, but then pulled back. However the acknowledgements say this book is for queer black boys/men. So something is maybe going on there between Cameron and Zion, but right now it’s still well below the surface.

Cameron is incredibly self-aware for a pre-teen. He has insights that would be difficult for an adult. It feels as if Perry is trying to lessen the moments when Cameron acts like the 12yr old that he is, by immediately having him explain it. That suggests a lack of confidence in the likeability of the character – which is entirely misplaced. Cameron is a charming, intelligent boy and Perry should let his personality and actions stand for themselves.

A number of details seem like they were just not thought out properly, or at the least not well explained – though picking up things like that may be a force of habit seared into my brain, which won’t be true of young readers.

As an adult reader, I enjoyed it; flaws and all. This is Perry’s first published work, and there are more Cameron Battle stories to come. This is great, because I can see a lot of good in the writing here. There are big ideas, and the main issues are inability to properly convey the concepts, and a lack of technical skill. But those are both issues that improve with practice (and good editors to learn from). There’s nothing wrong here in the foundation of the story, and inexperience only has one fix.

If you’ve got kids in the early or pre-teens, or even a little below (as long as they can deal with creepy shadow monsters), I’d definitely recommend this one. It’s a good story. And as far as my white butt can tell, it’s good representation for African-Americans. And it’s a beautiful story about family, friendship, grief, love, and community. So put it on their read list, and talk about it with them.

Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdom was released on March 3rd 2022.

Grab it from Amazon UK or Amazon US, or wherever you get your books.

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