Review: Lalani of the Distant Sea

“But maybe her mother was right, and everything would be okay. It wasn’t a given that she would get mender’s disease. // Then again, it wasn’t a given that she wouldn’t.” page 69

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly, illustrated by Lian Cho.
Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 390 pages.
Lexile:  600L   .
AR Level:  4.4 (worth 7.0 points)  .

Sanlagita is a cursed isle, with harsh conditions and strict predetermined roles.  The only festival left is Sailing Day, a time of fear as the strongest Sanlagitans are sent to certain death.  But now a drought is changing things on the island for the worse.

Lalani of the Distant Sea
Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly, illustrated by Lian Cho.

This book reminded me of nothing so much as Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  Although the story and flavor are quite different, Kelly also uses the device of stories within a longer story to great effect.  The stories are short and set off from the main text by the use of a different font and a decorative border around the margins.

The main text also contains some smaller stories or story summaries, particularly in the dialogue between Lalani and the various beings she meets, but also in the stories she begs other island women to tell her, and the stories she dreams herself.  Through these different stories, Kelly is able to deepen the reader’s understanding of the main storyline.

Viewpoint alternates between Lalani, the mostly un-named storytellers, and Hetsbi, the brother of Lalani’s best friend.  While the focus is on Lalani, this allows Kelly to also explain what is going on among the ordinary people of the island, and cover the mythology and mystical events of her world.  The main story is told in the third person limited perspective, but the smaller ones play around with different formats, including first or second person.

Lalani of the Distant Sea p58-59 resized
Pages 58 and 59 are an example of the smaller detailing that surrounds the story-within-a-story text of Lalani of the Distant Sea

I read this book twice, as I typically do with most fiction reviewed on this blog.  These readings took place amid drastically different points in my life – the first during my pre-2020 normal, the second far in to a global pandemic, national uprising, personal grief, and several sudden life changes.  What didn’t change was the unique atmosphere and beautiful layering of Kelly’s writing and world.

Ghosts are present in a few different ways and can affect the world around them fairly significantly.  Souls compared to bodies have some practical applications to the storyline, but beyond the acceptance that one has a soul which can fulfill some magical purposes, it didn’t appear to align with any particular religious tradition that I recognized.   I’d love to read opinions from Filipino reviewers since the publisher states this was inspired by Filipino folklore.

I appreciated that Kelly did not default to romance between Hetsbi and Lalani.  There is a mild crush between Lalani and another character instead – much better than the unrequited love plotline that shows up in so many MG/YA novels.  The romance, however, was very mild and remains suitable for MG readers.

What is not so mild is the violent references.  Characters die, and some of those deaths are detailed and messy.  Others are seriously ill, and as you may have guessed from the opening description, some characters are sent to almost certain death.  While sensitive readers will want to be aware, it was on a level with the original Grimm’s fairy tales, and didn’t dwell on the macabre.  The majority of the deaths, injuries, and illnesses have fantastical causes, but a few stem from more mundane disasters.

Lalani of the Distant Sea p254-255 resized
Pages 254 and 255 of Lalani of the Distant Sea are a full-page example of how Lian Cho’s excellent artwork perfectly captures the text’s creepy, fantastical vibe.

This book has a sort of distant, exquisitely beautiful horror vibe.  Since I do not read adult horror, it was a novel experience for me to have my heart racing in fear for beloved characters while also submersed in a gorgeous magical universe.  Although the prose and style reminded me most of Grace Lin’s immersive fantasy novels, the substance and plot were more like The Jumbies – this could work for readers who enjoyed either!

Beyond characters dying, getting mortally injured, and experiencing life-threatening events, a leader on Sanlagita is cruel and despotic, and when some try to resist, the majority turn against them.  Lalani and her mother experience a domestic violence – while uncle/stepfather Drum’s actions sometimes fall within the cultural norms of Sanlagita, they cross it enough within the text to mention.  He engages in name-calling, shaming, physical intimidation, and punishment.

My second read-through, amidst a pandemic, found this sometimes hit too closely.  Major illness strikes three times – the presumably bloodborne illness that affects menders, a fly bite that takes down a major character, and the tree blight affecting the pachenka, ultimately eliminating the bai.  In particular, the illness that affects a parent during a parent-child separation should be noted.  For children who have been deeply affected by the pandemic, adults may want to exercise caution, preread, or include more discussion and time to process.

I would suggest this for the older range of MG, or for young readers who don’t scare easily.  The vibe was creepier than most of the MG fantasy I’ve read, but will still appeal to fantasy lovers.  It’s also lovely to see a diverse self-contained novel in a market currently focused more on quest series.    Highly recommended.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

7 thoughts on “Review: Lalani of the Distant Sea”

    1. In the last two years I read or reread more than 70 middle grade fantasy books. Although Lalani of the Distant Sea wasn’t my favorite – too dark for my personal tastes – it was by FAR one of the most memorable. A difficult book to review, but if I worked in a school library or bookstore, definitely one I’d be handselling!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you reviewed it beautifully, I got a great sense of what it was like. I like the idea of it being a little dark, I think I would’ve appreciated that so much at that age. But it sounds so unique and good to know about! Thanks for sharing it.

        Liked by 1 person

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