City of Islands by Kali Wallace. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins 2018.
12-year-old orphan Mara works hard as a diver for the Lady of the Tides, taking a small boat out with her teen partner Izzy to look for magical relics. The Caribbean-like small islands (populated mostly by brown-skinned people like Mara) are controlled by mages like the Lady of the Tides. Some ordinary workers have passed down magical songs that can help them with their work, though even the magic of the mages is only a fragment of that rumored to have been possessed by the Founders, underwater dwellers who are said to have built the grandest buildings in the archipelago.
Mara would love to have some song magic of her own, but so far, no one has been willing to train her – her mother, when she lived, told her that magic was not worth trying for. So when Mara finds the skeleton of a giant creature during her dive as we first meet her, she hopes that it will earn her a proper place as apprentice to the Lady of the Tides. Instead, she’s sent to investigate the forbidding black island tower of Winter Blade, where dwells the Lord of Muck – the very person Mara believes responsible for the disappearance of the woman who last took care of her. She’ll have to prove that she has far more courage than anyone – including herself – thought she had.
I’m always on the look-out for books that combine my loves of fantasy and music, and this certainly fits the bill. The culture of the archipelago seems well developed, and Mara’s character and confidence in herself develops pleasingly. I also appreciated that while there were a couple of powerful and unsavory women, Mara also had supportive female relationships, including a scholar visiting from the continent who challenges Mara’s low opinion of herself, and her diving partner Izzy who treats her as a sister. My only quibble is that Mara felt a little younger than she’s described, but I’m not sure I could put my finger on why I thought so. This is an enjoyable and original story.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.