Drift, by M.K. Hutchins (Tu Books, April 2014, upper middle grade/younger YA)
Imagine a world where turtle islands swim through the ocean, each bearing on its back a great tree, each trailing the roots of its tree beneath them. Some are large, some small, and all are home to people. But it is not a peaceful ocean for the turtles and the people for whom they are home. The turtles must contend with monstrous nagas, who devour their roots and slow them down in their quests for food; the people must contend with the possibility of larger turtle communities attacking and enslaving them.
Tenjat and his sister came to their small turtle home fleeing danger on a larger island. Tenjat is determined to become a Keeper-one who works to keep the turtle safe and fed, while being supported by the general populace. That way he can guarantee that he and his sister will have a safe, prosperous future, without having to burden the turtle by slowing it down with the weight of offspring. For in this world, to become a husband, farming the turtle ground and reproducing so as to have cheap labor on hand, is the most shameful fate a young man can have.
And even though his sister (for mysterious reasons that she won't tell her brother) objects strongly, Tenjat presents himself at the door to his turtle's great tree, and takes the test....
And what the reader gets next is sort of a Magic School of Turtle Keeper Training, complete with forays into the world of the monsters and the gaining of magical treasures and bullying older students and some good teachers and some bad! (I liked this part of the book very much).
And then what readers get is Tenjat and his allies having to do some serious turtle-saving, during the course of which they up-end their island's ideas of the natural order of things (big twist here--I'm not sure it is entirely convincing, but it was big and interesting all right!).
So all in all, a good, gripping read. Readers who make it past the rather depressing farming introduction to the great tree will be rewarded. It's a good one for your older middle grade reader--there's relationship issues, but not of a "romance is the most important thing" kind, more the sort of still emotionally not yet mature middle-grade kind. And middle grade readers, like me, do enjoy a good magical school-type story....with cool monsters and magical objects wrested from a mysterious non-world!
My one dissatisfaction with the book is the amount of opprobrium toward "hubs" (husbands), which the aforementioned middle grade reader might have a hard time understanding. On the other hand, many middle grade kids think that ending up settled with a passel of kids a horrible fate, and so they might relate strongly to Tenjat's cultural prejudice against reproduction. They might, however, be baffled by his repulsion when he starts feeling "hubish" toward the young woman, Avi, who is his trainer (and a beautiful strong, skilled, full-of-agency-and-independent story trainer at that). In any event, I felt that I grasped the whole issue of cultural prejudice rather more efficiently than the author gave me credit for, and worried more about sustainable, genetically diverse populations than I was expected too.
I was also slightly bothered by the fact that, while women who marry and reproduce are also not respected, they are seemingly less despised, as if they have less choice, and I am one for gender-equaliaty in public shaming, if public shaming their must be...But on the other hand, I am pretty sure this unbalance comes from Tenjat (being our male POV character) desperately not wanting to become a hub himself, and so we hear more about that side of things....
Drift is inspired by Mayan cosmology, twisted and added to, which makes it a refreshing change, and its people are described as brown skinned, making this one for my list of diverse speculative fiction. The world-building, especially the Info Dump reveal towards the end, does require that belief be gently folded and put on a top shelf, perhaps more so than most, but that makes it all the more fresh and fascinating for those who cooperate with the story-telling!
Here's what Kirkus said, which isn't actually all that helpful....but you can read samples on line at Lee and Low, which is more so. Drift is a Junior Library Guild selection.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher