How to Survive Ancient Spells & Crazy Kings

How to Survive Ancient Spells & Crazy KingsIn How To Survive Ancient Spells And Crazy Kings, Bianca and her cousin Melvin convince their parents to take them to the Maya ruins of Tikal to look for Zebulan, their archeologist grandfather who has gone missing. Bianca found a jade necklace that Zeb sent to her father for safekeeping. Of course, she decides that she really needs to bring it with her. But since she’s essentially stolen it, she has to keep it secret.

Once in Central America, she begins to see ancient Maya people that no one else can see. She and Melvin come across the ancient city of Etza which has been unaffected by time for 2000 years. It exists beside but not as part of the modern world, and it’s in danger. The day of death is coming unless a prophecy can be fulfilled. The kids find Zeb there, working to bring the Maya into the modern world.

There’s a lot of history and details included in the story, interspersed with tons of action including skeletal zombies, betrayal, human sacrifice, and lots of bloodletting. Bianca is a fun narrator, and her irreverent humor pervades the book. The chapter titles are worth reading—they’re 1-3 sentences long and often offer advice or observations on How to Survive Ancient Spells & Crazy Kings (“It’s good to have armor lying around in a deadly game of Hide and Seek.”).

Note: This book is currently unavailable, although there’s a note from the author in the comments about how you can get your hands on the ebook! Hopefully it will be republished later this year.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Violence and Gore

There’s a good bit of detail about the rituals of bloodletting and human sacrifice. Bianca finds the bloodletting really gross because she’s not a big fan of blood, but somehow the book doesn’t portray bloodletting as savage, just gross. Bianca repeatedly finds herself pulled across a rock with a crazy king trying to carve out her heart. Zeb also ends up in that position more than once. Neither of them gets killed, though. There are battles toward the end that get a bit graphic.

As Bianca tries to do what’s right, she convinces the people of Etza to rise up and fight against Black Snake (the crazy king). I never did exactly figure out why physical battle was necessary, so the “violence is the answer” theme kind of bothered me. Bianca gets caught up in battle lust, although she never actively kills anyone and realizes that carrying a club isn’t useful as she wouldn’t use it.

The ending isn’t easy. The kids fail, although they don’t get killed, so that’s a kind of success. The people of Etza collapse in pain as the curse comes true—this saves Bianca from being sacrificed, so that’s good, but it also means all of her friends are in pain and about to disappear. Which they do. It’s ambiguous as an ending—after being part of an unchanging world for 2000 years, I think some of them were pretty tired. But others weren’t ready to go gracefully. Kids who like things clear cut will probably have an issue with this ending.


Melvin and Bianca bicker like siblings, but you can tell the cousins are good friends and they care about each other. The parents are mostly comic relief, as Melvin’s mom is a safety freak (to use the terminology my brother and I used for our parents) and Bianca’s parents are well meaning but mostly inconveniences to be worked around. Zeb is well loved, and Bianca mentions that part of what she loves about him is that he really listens to her. But he also has a tendency to disappear for years at a time with no word to his family at all.

Education and Knowledge

Bianca teases Melvin about being a know-it-all (she calls him a nerd, and it’s not a compliment), but it’s clear that knowledge really matters to her, too. The things they know—whether from a book or the History Channel—end up helping them tremendously as they search the ancient city, looking for Zeb. Melvin naturally sees everything he does as an educational opportunity.

Drugs & Alcohol

Bianca drinks honey mead, which helps clear her head. At some point she’s drugged and ends up sleeping for a day. Leaping Frog drinks “dream juice” to get visions of what he should do.

Respect for Other Cultures

Bianca and Melvin have a lot to learn about the Maya culture, but for the most part they’re eager to find out more. They feel honored when they get to participate in rituals (although the ritual of human sacrifice is one Bianca could do without experiencing). Bianca struggles with whether it’s right to try to bring these ancient Maya into the modern world—she can see that it won’t be an easy transition, for anyone.

Nightmare Fuel

There’s plenty. Skeletons rise up and attack. A rock face is covered with snakes which start crawling all over Bianca. Seeing things no one else can, having visions other won’t believe, coming too late to save a loved one…there are a lot of things that might be a problem for more sensitive kids. Some of the artwork is pretty creepy. But there’s a sense of humor throughout, so I wouldn’t classify this as a particularly scary book.

People Are Complicated

Betrayal can come from those who seem trustworthy. Apparent villains often have motives that make sense and that you can identify with. Good people can make bad choices for good reasons. There are rarely easy answers. Once you start to care for people, situations get complicated—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. Few of the characters in this book are purely one dimensional, even though there isn’t a ton of space spent on character development.


Bianca hid the fact that she had the necklace a good bit longer than I would have preferred. I get the whole “But I shouldn’t have it so I can’t tell even though I want to” thing to some extent, but it started to get old. Once she did tell, she was totally right that it was a big deal and she’d made a mistake in bringing the necklace to Etza, but keeping the secret wasn’t making that mistake any better.

Politics Are Politics

Bianca draws a lot of comparisons between the political intrigue of an ancient city on the verge of disaster and her everyday life in middle school. She identifies the bullies and the mean girls in both places—she says middle school is just as bloodthirsty and vicious as Etza. Like in middle school, she has a tendency to defy the politics and act impulsively. And just like in middle school, this often gets her and her friends into trouble, and also occasionally makes her into a hero (like when she “accidentally” spilled sloppy joes on a mean girl’s white T-shirt in the cafeteria).


Melvin has to pretend he’s a girl when they go into Etza because he’s not muscular enough to be a useful man—if they find out he’s useless, he’ll be sacrificed. There are mean girl politics among the Maya and in Bianca’s stories about middle school. Yax-Azul, a young Maya woman, is engaged to be married against her will.


It’s an informative and exciting book. For kids who used to love The Magic Treehouse books but are now ready for something more complicated, scary, and exciting, this is a great choice. The action is relentless to the point of being occasionally confusing, but with short chapters and skeleton zombies, it’s likely to keep kids reading. I’d recommend it for ages 10 and up, as long as nothing mentioned here sounds too scary for your kid. It’s a good book for reluctant readers.


How To Survive Ancient Spells And Crazy Kings by Laura Pauling
Published in 2012 by Pugalicious Press
Read an ARC supplied by the publisher



  1. Thank you so much for the lovely review!

    Unfortunately, the small press which closed recently means my book is no longer for sale. I’ll be working hard to rerelease, hopefully in 2013.

    If anyone would like to purchase the ebook version from me directly, please contact me through the Contact tab on my blog. laurapauling dot com


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