When compiling my list of new releases back in the middle of July 2009, I noticed a book called Sea of the Dead, by Julia Durango (Simon and Schuster, 2009, middle grade, 132 pages), and thought it looked interesting. But it didn't get much blog buzz, and it didn't get nominated for the Cybils, and so it languished in my mind. Then it won the Golden Kite Award, given by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and that bumped it into front and center.
And boy, is it a good book!
Set in an alternate Mesoamerica, it tells of a boy named Kehl, the son of one of the Warrior Princes of a great empire. It's an Aztecian-type empire, whose power is built on slavery and blood, and Kehl has been rigorously trained for years to take his place in its hierarchy. Then he is kidnapped by the people of the sea, the enemies of his people, known to him as "the Fallen." Aboard a ship crewed by former slaves and victims of his empire's raids, Kehl is forced to question what he has always taken for granted about his world.
The captain sets him to work drawing a map of the familiar empire and the uncharted lands and islands beyond it. As the map grows, so does Kehl's understanding of what his empire really is, and what waits at its boarders. For the first time, he feels valued for his skills, for the first time, he makes a real friend, and, again for the first time, he feels like a person with choices. And the ultimate choice lies before him...
Although short, it is sweet and to the point. It's not tremendously subtle (but this, I think, adds middle grade accessibility), but on the other hand it has great immediacy of setting and plot. By turns exciting and contemplative, Kehl's story entranced me, and I highly recommend it to all and sundry.
I put a fantasy tag on this post, because it's alternate history, but there's no magic, and although two goddesses are mentioned, they never show up...So if you are looking for a book for a ten or eleven year old boy or girl who doesn't like books dripping with the fantastic, but who does like piracy (although the Fallen aren't exactly pirates) and ocean adventure, with kidnappings and a bit of blood (although not that much), and a lot of physical detail, think of this one!
I put in girl, because I think girls would enjoy it too, even though there are no female characters...except one who is dead and one who is off in the distance. On the other hand, it's lovely to have an excellent book on hand about a fantastical Mesoamerica, peopled by characters of color.
Here's another review, at Tempting Persephone, and another at Zion School Library.