City of Islands, by Kali Wallace

City of Islands, by Kali Wallace, takes readers on a  journey through the oceans between islands, where a young girl meets old magic...and must quickly learn to be part of it before it takes all that she loves away from her!  Actually, it takes readers on a journey to various islands, though there is much ocean travel involved (as islands demand), but I thought "through the oceans" sounded more poetic....

In any event.

12-year old Mara has been twice orphaned, first when her parents died when she was 5, and second when the eccentric bonemage, Bindy, who had been her foster mother, left home one night and never came back.  After a tense year scrounging in the fish market, she became a diver for one of the great ladies of the islands, search for relics of the founders, the sea people who built the city scattered on a small archipelago centuries ago with their magic.  The founders may be long gone (no one knows where, or why), but magical relics can still be found down in the depths, and some people of the islands have enough magic themselves to do small workings of their own.

Mara and her diving partner and best friend Izzy hope for an extraordinary find, one that might give them enough money to secure the futures they want--Izzy happily married with the young woman she loves, Mara getting the education in magic she's been longing for since she found out what magic was.  But the remarkable collection of fantastical bones they find that day when the story opens doesn't bring peace and plenty.  Instead, it cracks open what little stability their lives had.

The mystery of the bones draws them into the horror of magic being used by a man blinded by ambition for a truly ghastly purpose, one that combined with grotesque surgery leaves its victims monsterous...yet still themselves.  With Izzy and her other best friend, a boy named Fish Hook, are captured by that man, Mara must do everything she can to save them...before they too end up at the bottom of the ocean.  (note--horrible things are done to people, and there is no magical healing at the end, though there may be in future.  The courage of these victims, who may look strange and different, but don't hide what they are, is actually one of the most reaffirming parts of the book).

Fortunately Mara has more affinity to the magic of her world than she'd guessed at, but still it is touch and go, with a whole panoply of desperate deeds, fiendish magic, unlikely new friends, and unguessed at old betrayals....

It's a very gripping story, and the magic is truly fresh and memorable.  Part me also wants to praise the world building--the island city is also fresh and memorable--but the archaeologist in me wasn't satisfied that it was a sustainable maritime economy....I wanted more certainty that the author had thought out all the details of how things worked.  Greenwood Island, as shown on the map, is huge compared to the other islands, but it seems totally irrelevant to Mara's world, which is confined to smaller, stonier islands, built into cities by the founders' magic (and also, less importantly, to the island where the dead are laid to rest). And how do the rich elites stay rich and elite? Yes, they control magic, but where does this actually get them?  And are there reliable sources of freshwater? (these doubts could well just be grown-up me, and therefore irrelevant to the target audience experience).  

But my own doubts aside, Mara is an utterly engaging character, heroic without being unbelievable, talented without being in any way over the top in her gifts.  Like most of her fellow islanders, she has “brown skin, brown eyes, and curly black hair,” and the cover illustration of her does her lovely justice!

Kirkus gives this one a star, saying "Inspiration and excitement from beginning to end."  I would have held back on the star, but can't disagree with their conclusion.

1 comment:

  1. I have this checked out from the library right now and am looking forward to reading it!


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