City of the Beasts Summary

Isabel Allende

City of the Beasts

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

City of the Beasts Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende.

City of the Beasts is the Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende’s first novel aimed at a young adult audience. The story begins when fifteen year-old Alex Cold is sent to stay with his grandmother, Kate, in New York, while his mother is treated for cancer. Kate is not a typical grandmother: she works as a reporter for International Geographic and, rather than picking Alex up from the airport, she leaves him to make his own way to her apartment. He does so, but is mugged in the process. Kate has little sympathy for her grandson but does present him with a flute that once belonged to his grandfather, to replace the one that was stolen from him. She also makes the surprise announcement that he will accompany her to the Amazon rainforest, where she is being sent to report on a mysterious beast that has been sighted there.

When they arrive in the Amazon, Kate and Alex are introduced to the rest of the expedition, which includes a photographer and his assistant; an anthropologist and caricature of a colonial villain, Ludovic Leblanc; Dr. Omayra Torres, who is on a mission to vaccinate the natives; and their guide, Caesar Santos, and his daughter, Nadia. The expedition, which is accompanied by Brazilian soldiers as a security measure, travels by boat along the Rio Negra. The atmosphere is tense and the journey is difficult. One soldier is killed by a poison dart and another by the mysterious Beast; when the photographer’s assistant, Joel, is injured in an anaconda attack, it is decided that he should return to the village with the soldiers’ bodies and send further assistance.

In another dramatic twist, Alex and Nadia are kidnapped by the People of the Mist, an indigenous tribe who have had no contact with outsiders and who are attracted by the music of Alex’s flute. They take Alex and Nadia on a dangerous journey through the rainforest to their undiscovered village, the Eye of the World. Along the way, the People’s chief, Mokarita, is mortally wounded and he dies shortly after they arrive in the village. Alex and Nadia participate in the funeral rites, which include taking a hallucinogenic drug, and Nadia discovers that her totem is the eagle. During these proceedings, Alex, whose totem is the jaguar, is also initiated into the tribe and into manhood. After these rituals have been performed, the tribe’s shaman takes them to visit the fabled Beasts.

Another difficult journey takes them to the city of the Beasts, which is located inside a dormant volcano. When he sees the city, Alex is reminded of the legendary El Dorado because it is made of fool’s gold. The Beasts themselves emit a powerful odor and resemble giant sloths. The children discover that the People of the Mist consider the Beasts to be gods and that the Beasts, in turn, preserve the People’s history in the form of epic poems. Alex and Nadia agree to keep the city of the Beasts a secret and to help protect them from Western science. In return they ask for gifts: Nadia for crystal eggs and Alex for the water of life to save his mother. They must pass through trials and make sacrifices to earn these treasures, but eventually they succeed and return to the Eye of the World.

There, they discover that the smoke from Mokarita’s funeral pyre has signaled their location to the search party that is out looking for them and the village is overrun, not only by the original expedition party, but by the armed forces too. Nadia and Alex try to reassure the People of the Mist and persuade them to accept the vaccinations. However, they learn that the vaccinations have been replaced with dangerous doses of the measles virus by Captain Ariosto in an attempt to wipe out the indigenous people so that their lands can be seized and exploited. His plot exposed, Ariosto orders his forces to attack the village but the People flee into the forest. The Beasts intervene and kill the corrupt Ariosto and his men, before coming to an arrangement with the remaining expedition members, in which they agree to keep the People of the Mist, the Eye of the World and the Beasts a secret and to protect them as best they can.

City of the Beasts is a coming-of-age story in which Alex is forced to confront the possibility of his mother’s death, as well as his own search for identity, as suggested by his discovery of his totem animal. His friend Nadia’s belief in magic, as well as his encounter with the People of the Mists and the Beasts, challenges Alex’s assumptions and, as such, those of Western rationalism more generally. This is significant, as Allende’s novel also deals with themes of postcolonial politics and environmentalism. While her portrayal of the People of the Mist is troublingly close to colonial tropes of the “noble savage”, her concern with the way Western science and industry continue to collude with state authorities in the dispossession of indigenous peoples is clear. Ariosto’s attempted genocide of the People of the Mist is a terrible example of the violence and destruction that accompany the exploitation of natural resources around the world. Given that this is Allende’s first novel for a specifically Young Adult audience, it suggests that she thinks it is important that adolescents start to engage with these issues.