The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards (HarperCollins, 2012, middle grade, 416 pages)
Thirteen-year-old Zardi longs to see the great wide world beyond her town. She loves the stories of adventure and magic that she manages to hear--not as many as she likes, because the sultan has banned all magic, and even all talk of it, from the kingdom of Arribitha. Disobey, and die. But Sinbad, the sailor, dared risk the sultan's wrath to tell his tales...and Zardi was there in the crowd along the waterfront, entranced.
So far Zardi has escaped the sultan's men, who are quick to break up crowds such as that, but since she is thirteen, a new danger looms. The sultan has a nasty habit of taking unmarried young women to be his praise singers, for a short term--and then killing them. It is not Zardi, though, who is taken, but her sister...
And so Zardi chops off her hair, dresses as a boy, and sets out into the world to find out if it the stories of an army of resistance to the sultan are true. With her goes her foster brother, Rhidan (abandoned as an infant), on a quest to find out the mystery of his own past. And fate leads them to Sinbad--storyteller, rouge, pirate, and charismatic leader of men. Whose mother just happens to be the daughter of a djinn, and a magic user in her own right.
When Zardi and Rhidan meet Sinbad's mother, Rhidan's own innate magic, the heritage of his mysterious father, is woken. And so, when Rhidan launches Sinbad's ship into a magical whirlwind to save it from the Sultan, a magical adventure begins, drawing on the adventures of Sinbad as told in the Arabian Nights, but combining them with the quest story of two young people seeking the magic and knowledge they need to set everything to rights.
The Book of Wonders is a good title for this--like the Arabian Nights, once things get going, the episodic adventures fall one after another like beads on a string, and just when seem things settled, another perilous encounter appears! If you are a reader who delights in one magical, dangerous, imaginative adventure after another, this is a book for you.
"The light bent and twisted. It grew arms and then legs, and Zardi gasped as a figure flickered into life beside her. It was a man who looked as if he were made out of green-tinted glass. He wore spectacles and had a neat, curling mustache and was no taller than her knee. A breath lodged in her thought. Could it be? Is he a djinni?
"You rubbed?" the man said in a dour voice, hovering up to eye level." (Page 220)
I myself would have liked a bit more, though--as readers of my blog have heard me say before, I prefer character to plot, and character here is definitely not as front and center. Although Zardi was reasonably real to me--brave, smart, and determined in the true middle grade fantasy way, Rhidan never came at all alive to me at all, and Sinbad, after a promising start that indicated interesting complexities of character, essentially faded out of the story.
By way of observation--sometimes, in fantasy books for "children," the writing and vocabulary can be complex and demanding. This is not the case here--Richards underlines her points, and keeps her sentences, for the most part, short and to the point. Which is either a good thing, or not so much of one, depending on the age, taste, and mood of the reader! But it does give the story a slightly younger vibe than some "middle grade" sff. And indeed, although there are some tense episodes of monster confrontation (those who don't like snakes, be warned--they play a scary role at one part), there's nothing here that pushes the story Young Adult-ward.
Although this story comes to a satisfying conclusion, many questions about Rhidan in particular are left unanswered--lots of room for a sequel.
Here's what I want to read next, though--Sinbad's original stories! I enjoyed picking up on many Sinbadian references, but I want to go back and see what I missed.
Other reviews can be found at Mundie Kids, The Book Monsters, The Book Cellar, and Michelle and Leslie's Book Picks
Edited to add: Here's an interview with Jasmine Richards at TheHappyNappyBookseller, who also has this review.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher