I was so excited when an author from my Top 10 Fantasy Authors I’ve Never Read list popped up on the Cybils nominations this year! Sarah Beth Durst writes mostly YA – I understand this is her first middle grade novel.
Journey across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst. Clarion Books, 2017.
In a fantasy kingdom with a mix of mostly Asian cultures live twelve-year-old twin princesses Ji-lin and Seika. Seika, the eldest, will be empress of the Hidden Islands when their father passes. Following tradition, Ji-lin, the younger, has been trained by the winged lions who are their partners to be her sister’s guardian. Her personal partner in this is the young and very enthusiastic winged lion Alejan (whose name I kept wanting to pronounce as a nickname for Alejandro, certainly not what the author intended!) After a full year apart for this training, Ji-lin and Seika are finally allowed to see each other again – only to be sent on the great journey across the Hidden Islands to visit the dragon who maintains the barrier that keeps the islands hidden from the outside world and protected from koji, the giant monsters that plague the rest of the world.
As they travel, they learn that earthquakes have been increasing in number and severity, and there are more and more trouble with the koji that the barrier is supposed to keep out. When they rescue Kirro, a boy from the empire the Hidden Islands escape from centuries ago, they know that the barrier must be failing indeed. But as they compare stories, they have to wonder whose stories are true, and how much safety is worth.
This is an exciting adventure with three great lead characters. I appreciated a culture that felt very traditional but still didn’t balk at having girls inherit both the major roles in the kingdom. And for all the battles with monsters, there are some deep questions underlying the story. My only hesitation here was with the mix of cultures – do they combine to form their own unique culture, or would someone coming from an Asian perspective experience this as just a random mishmash? I don’t have that perspective, so I can’t say for sure. I did enjoy reading fantasy with Asian-inspired protagonists, and I enjoyed Ji-Lin, Seika and Alejan and their adventures for their own sake as well. Give this to any kid in search of a good fantasy adventure!
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflect my own opinion, not that of the committee.