I haven’t read a children’s book (not including YA) for a very long time, but I’d heard great things of this book, aimed at the Middle Grade age range, so when it came up on the Jhalak shortlist I was pleased to have an excuse to read it.
Firstly, I have to say that the artwork in this book is stunning. Not only is the front cover one of my recent favourites, but the pages inside are beautiful. It was also a quick read at only just over 200 pages. I can imagine that kids would love this as it’s visually attractive and the world that Millwood Hargrave creates is vibrant.
The main character is Isabella, or Isa, a thirteen year old girl who lives with her father, a cartographer, in the island of Joya. Her town is ruled over by the Governor, an imposing man with a less than benevolent manner. Everyone is scared of him and he takes what he can from the people under his watch. Despite this, his daughter Lupe is Isa’s best friend. The Governor loves his daughter, so much so that when she decides that she wants to go to the local school instead of being taught at home, he knocks down the existing school and rebuilds it to his exacting standards. One of Isa and Lupe’s schoolmates goes missing one day and is found murdered. Isa blames Lupe, who had sent the girl off to look for dragon fruit for her. When Lupe then goes missing, leaving a note to say that she went to look for the killer and redeem herself, her father gathers his men and mounts an expedition to find her. Isa cuts her hair and dresses as a boy in order to be allowed to go, using her experience with maps to convince the Governor that she is needed.
I loved the use of myth throughout this story. Isa’s father tells her about how a thousand years before, the island was not tied to the earth but would sail the ocean like a ship. There was a young girl named Arinta who saved the island from a fire demon who anchored the island and tried to claim it for the Fire Realm. The myth is linked throughout the book and as Isa makes her way across the uncharted parts of Joya on her quest, her own story begins to mirror Arinta’s. I liked this as a technique, the plot woven throughout. Isa as a character was well-drawn, though I never quite believed in Lupe to the same extent.
I do have a couple of quibbles with the book, but this might just be from an older reader’s point of view (I don’t have kids to test this on!). Firstly, I wanted more from certain characters. The Governor is a fascinating character, and I loved that he wasn’t just a 2D villain. The problem for me was that he seemed to have a lot more to say. I felt that we got half of his origin story and I was expecting to discover more so was a little disappointed to have the rest remain a mystery. I also felt that the first half of the book was quite slow to get going but then once it did…whoosh! The pace was so breakneck that I found myself paging back just to make sure of where I was. I think that perhaps a younger reader would not be reading this in one stint though so this wouldn’t be so much of an issue.
The final verdict? I enjoyed this far more than I expected. Even for a MG book there was plenty of peril and scary monsters, and I loved the new world that the author creates.