Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi.
Dutton Children’s, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 360 pages.
Lexile: 1080L .
AR Level: 7.5 (worth 11.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a direct sequel to Furthermore, although it focuses on a new character.
Laylee’s mother has died (but still haunts the house) and in his grief, her father left her alone as the final mordeshoor in the magical land called Whichwood. At thirteen, she is overburdened by unceasing demands of the living and the dead, struggling to survive with the pittance given her and care for all the dead while desperately ill herself.
I definitely enjoyed this book just as much as the first, maybe even more. Furthermore was a magical romp, a playful but also very serious journey through an ever-changing fantastical landscape. Whichwood takes place almost entirely in one place, and while highly magical, it’s an orderly magical place similar to Ferenwood, so the reader has some time to get fir bearings and delve into the culture and peculiarities of Whichwood.
However, Whichwood is significantly darker than the previous book. As one might expect from a protagonist charged with caring for the dead, Laylee devotes most of her time to washing and preparing bodies. Because she is so overworked and the townspeople have little respect for her, the bodies are often filthy and decaying – pieces fall off as she works. The customs of Whichwood might bother squeamish readers too, such as removing the fingernails of a corpse.
It’s a spoiler to even say this much, but vivid, gruesome, and morbid possession also occurs. Mafi somewhat softens the blow by explaining that children aren’t possessed as described because they are smaller than adults and ghosts want the most room possible. But that explanation won’t keep a young child from nightmares. I would definitely avoid this for very young or sensitive readers, and push it towards the higher end of MG.
Laylee is an interesting protagonist and a nice foil to Alice and Oliver. While Alice previously was desperately poor and felt unloved, and Oliver was wealthy in material goods but poor in other ways, Laylee’s situation differs. She’s confident in her parents’ love but also aware that they love each other far more than they care for her. She’s from an ancient, once wealthy and respected family that is currently impoverished and shunned.
So she’s in the position of having silks and diamond-encrusted clothes but not food – the villagers will not accept any belongings of her family for trade, and they’ve stopped paying for mordeshoor services since her father left. The moral situation here is clearer than the previous book, and more about Laylee’s character development and growth.
There is also more cultural connection. Laylee references Rumi and uses non-English words. She has a clear sense of the ancient traditions of her people and the magic she wields. Although Laylee is not respected by the world at large, she has great self-respect, is confident in her own skin, and is dedicated to her ancient profession. What an amazing message for young people, especially young women.
An excellent aspect of this is that Laylee is essentially hijabi without ever stating the word directly. She covers her hair, wears modest clothing, and is considerably distressed when Oliver, a strange boy, casually touches her arm. These descriptions felt very natural and reminded me of hijabi friends.
Romance is introduced as our Furthermore protagonists meet Whichwood denizens. This aspect felt a bit too neatly resolved, although hopefully there will be more intrigue in the next book of the series. I greatly appreciated that the romance isn’t graphic. Characters flirt mildly, a boy explains to a girl that he was staring at her because he found her so beautiful, and a boy carries a girl briefly (and when an alternate method of transport is found, it’s insinuated that he enjoyed holding her).
Iacopo Bruno did an excellent job on the illustrations. In particular the cover illustration makes it clear Bruno read the book. The little details like Laylee’s lavish but worn and bloodstained dress or the tools on her belt are accurate to the novel’s description.
Because of the gruesome nature of Laylee’s work, and the introduction of romance to this series, I think that this will have fewer readers than Furthermore although it’s a stronger book in many ways. But I love that young Muslim fantasy readers can be empowered by this book, and hope that the series continues. Check out Islamic School Librarian for an #ownvoices reviewer’s opinion.
I do hope for fewer deaths and less dismemberment in the next title. Mafi seems optimistic with her second book, and several points hint at continuation. Personally I’m hoping for the underwater world next, and then after that perhaps a more in-depth study of Ferenwood, as we’ve only seen a few tantalizing glimpses of Alice’s home city. Recommended.