Journey Across the Hidden Islands, by Sarah Beth Durst (Clarion Books, April 4, 2017), is an excellent fantasy adventure pick for the 10 or so year old who thinks the cover looks really awesome (it is a very good cover to story fit!). Two twin girls, still kids (they are just turned 12), have been trained all their lives for their future places in their kingdom of islands. Seika, the older girl, will rule it, and Ji-Lin will be her champion and protector. So Seika learns courtly skills and rituals while Ji-Lin, partnered with a winged lion, is sent off to learn how to fight.
On their twelfth birthday, the girls are stunned to be told by their father that they will be setting off to make the Emperor's Journey, generally an uneventful visit of the heir to the dragon whose powers keep the islands cut off and safe from the rest of the world. They had not expected to make this journey for several years, but are rather pleased to have the chance to journey together, flying on the winged lion. But the Hidden Islands are in danger. The magical barrier is weakening, and the islands are no longer completely hidden from demonic and human intrusions....Each island they visit on the way to the dragon offers more excitement of a tense and difficult kind than the next, and by the time they reach the dragon, they have learned almost more than their previous 12 years of careful education had taught them.
But will it be enough to keep their islands safe?
As is the case with your basic middle grade fantasy journey to save the kingdom, the characters learn to trust each other and themselves as they confront a series of escalating challenges. Because the two girls have been separated for years, they need to reconnect, and their loyalty and protectiveness for each other is one of the best parts of the book. That being said, the winged lion, a character in his own right (he converses just as much as any one else) is lovely too! The central dilemma of the safety of the Hidden Islands is one that I think will resonate just as resonantly as all get out with young adolescents--change and opening to new experiences is scary and unsafe, but has advantages as well.
Though the world building brings to mind Asia, it's more inspiration rather than a thinly veiled version of any reality, and in fact I wouldn't have spent any time thinking about its sources of inspiration if it weren't for the names. As such it offers a nice, though somewhat surficial, change from European inspired world-building, without reading to me as cultural appropriation (which I think is much less troubling an issue when the cultural providing the inspiration is an equal in power relationships, and which I also think involves much more borrowing from another cultural than is the case here). .
Short answer--enjoyable, not deeply deep but still with enough thought-provoking characters and situation for the fun adventures to have emotional backbone.
disclaimer: review copy provided by the author