Physically, Forest of the Pygmies is a gem of a book, a hardback with a pinky-mauve jacket featuring water lilies and silhouetted pygmies poling a flat-bottomed craft along a jungle waterway. The scene is idyllic, but just as the waterway turns out to be a nasty, croc-infested swamp, so the book's innocuous exterior belies its contents — those pretty covers enclose an extraordinary melange of plot and character-type, with a nod along the way at just about every fashionable cause of recent years.

It swings wildly from comedy to tragedy and hovers unsettlingly between the fiction of its main storyline and the bitter realities of modern Africa.

Ostensibly, Forest of the Pygmies is an adventure story, the concluding volume in the prolific Allende's trilogy for young readers. Seventeen-year-old Alexander Cold and his 14-year-old friend, Nadia Santos, his vodka-swilling journalist grandmother, an Amazonian African woman pilot and a couple of timid wildlife photographers are diverted from a safari to a mission of mercy in deepest Africa.

They fly to Ngoube, the realm of savage jungle creatures by night and the psychopathic Commander Maurice Mbembele, by day. The nomadic and peaceful pygmies and the Bantu people who once lived in harmony in this harsh world have fallen foul of Mbembele and it is up to Alexander and Nadia to deliver justice and restore peace.

So far, so good. On this level, Forest of the Pygmies is strangely old-fashioned, reminiscent of W.E. Johns' Biggles, or, in another format, Lee Falk's The Phantom, with Westerners sallying forth to enlighten the heathens. First, there are two missionaries who fail miserably and come to a sticky end, and then Alexander and co, who go to the rescue and themselves get into trouble. It would not have been surprising if the Ghost Who Walks had popped up, with his dog, Devil, at his side.

But there are more sinister undertones: the cruel dictator; a fetishistic, mask-wearing mad king; a witch doctor; a deposed rightful ruler, and the terrorised local population also evoke Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Bruce Chatwin's Viceroy of Ouidah.

And if real-world parallels are sought, Ngoube could be Idi Amin's Uganda, Mugabe's Zimbabwe or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. There are also echoes of the conflict and genocide in Rwanda and currently, the Sudan.

Alexander and Nadia have more at their fingertips, however, than Biggles and Algie could have ever imagined, and ultimately depend on their mystic connection with each other and the wider universe to overcome evil. Nadia especially is talented: she converses with animals and has the gift of invisibility. They have totemic spirit guardians, and call each other Jaguar and Eagle. They even share hallucinations that reveal the future.

If that were all it would be more than enough, but Allende doesn't stop: she happily includes asides on issues as diverse as environmental vandalism, famine, pollution, and species extinction. Which is not to deny the worthiness of any of these subjects, but they sit uncomfortably within the texture of the narrative, winking and blinking, little messages from the author.

There are no redeeming features. Forest of the Pygmies is cliched, overwritten and inconsistent in tone. The setting is fantastical, the characters are one-dimensional, the assignment improbable ... but hey, it would make a blockbuster movie. Someone, call Peter Jackson.

* Janet Hunt is a Waiheke-based writer and graphic designer. Her book A Bird in the Hand was the 2004 New Zealand Post Chidren and Young Adults Book of the Year.

* Harpercollins, $34.99