The Floating Islands, by Rachel Neumeier (Random House, 2011, YA, 388 pages)
When a volcano destroyes his home town, fourteen-year-old Trei finds himself sent off to the Floating Islands, his mother's home. His father's brother had refused to pay the fee to register him as a citizen of the mainland country of Tolounn.
Despite the pressure of grief, the sight of the islands, raised by dragon magic to float over the water fills Trei with wondering amazement. And from his first sight of the kajuraihi, men who soar through the sky on feathered wings, Trei knows he wants to become one of them. But can a half-island boy learn to see the winds?
His young island cousin, Araene, has dreams of her own--to escape the restrictive life of a woman and become a great chef. But she is fated to find the hidden doorway to the secret school where the island's mages are trained, for she has gifts of magic struggling to emerge (and one neat thing about her magic is that she tastes it, using her talents for cooking to help make sense of the magical).
Trei is accepted by the kajuraihi, and begins his training, and Araene, disguised as a boy, enters the secret school. But the Tolunnese have their hungry eye on the Floating Islands, and when they launch an expedition to seize them, Trie's loyalties, and his abilities, will be put to the test. And Areane finds herself responsible with the one thing that might save the islands--the egg of the dying fire dragon who lives at the islands' heart...
There are two parts to the book. The focuses on the minutiae of Trei and Araene's lives, as they explore the two schools (kajuraihi and magical) where they have found themselves. I utterly adored this part of the book--the secret school, in particular, is now right up there on my list of fictional schools of magic! Neumeier's detailed descriptions make things beautifully easy to imagine, and I could have read a whole book in which nothing more happened.
But then, in the second half of the book, war comes to the islands, and the focus shifts to that conflict, as Trei and Araene must put their new-found gifts to work to save their home. For Trei, this means coming to terms with his Tolunnese past--it is, after all, his father's country. And it is his understanding of the enemy that might tip the balance of the war...
My personal problem with reading about tense war situations in which I care deeply about the characters is that I am desperate to find out what happens to them! So the quality of my reading experience changed in this second part of the book--from happy, peaceful immersion in a beautifully created world to anxious page-turning-ness. I think I will enjoy this second half a lot more on subsequent re-readings (and yes, I will be re-reading this one), now that I know what happens! This part of the book has its own strength--it's here, in conflict, that the characters of the two young protagonists grow and develop.
I recommend this one specifically to those who enjoy books with strange and magical schools where young teenagers find their place in the world. For those who enjoyed Neumeier's first book, The City in the Lake, rest assured that the same beautiful writing is here; for those who were uncertain about that one, be assured that here the story swings along much more swingingly, following a much more straightforward arc of adventure and self-discovery.
Here's another review, at The Book Smugglers