City of Islands by Kali Wallace.
Katherine Tegen imprint, HarperCollins, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 328 pages.
Lexile: not leveled
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 12.0 points) .
Mara has been orphaned twice over – once when she survived her family’s shipwreck, and again when the bone mage who raised her was killed by a rival. Now she’s a diver for the Lady of the Tides, but worried about finding herself homeless again if they keep coming up empty-handed. A chance tip has her trying a new location where she finds a pile of strange spelled bones that don’t make sense. Her dream is to study magic with the Lady, but instead she’s rewarded with a challenge – find a way to break in to the impregnable Winter Blade fortress island.
Before I finished this book and started to write this review and checked the back flap of the book cover and got around to looking the author up, I knew that she would be white. By the time I was halfway through the book it was obvious, and here’s why – the hair. Wallace’s heroine, Mara, is a diver by profession. She lives on a small island in an archipelago where most everyone grows up swimming and boating and generally transitioning from water to not with ease.
Black hair can get wet, of course! (And you know if it has to be said, someone’s asked that before.) But it’s not a transition that’s done without thought. In particular, if Mara is a career diver noted for her ability to go deep and stay down a long time to retrieve objects, then she would have styles to help her achieve that. When she transitioned from salt to clear water in a magical movement, it might not have been her first priority, but she would have had at least a passing thought about her hair.
Just like she thinks about her clothes at points, especially when they aren’t suited to the task at hand, Mara would also be thinking about her hair – how to protect it, if the style she had chosen best suited the task at hand, what maintenance would be needed because of the latest unexpected development. In particular, the constant transition between salt water and wind would be something she’d have to deal with to have her nice long hair.
Now, one could argue that Mara is fairly underprivileged and might not have the time or ability to care for her hair, being that she was orphaned and then homeless prior to working for the Lady of the Tides. But I will tell you frankly two things – Renata Palisado might not care that much about her servants’ hair, but she would certainly not allow it to look disgraceful, because that would reflect poorly on her. And also, if Mara was not doing any sort of hair care routine, she would not have long hair anymore.
That rather large complaint out of the way, I did enjoy this book in the end. Kali Wallace has an interesting plot which resolves nicely but leaves a few strands that could be tugged for a sequel. The worldbuilding is intriguing, the magical systems have a unique spin, and the characters are well developed.
I enjoyed the movement of the plot – reasonable but not predictable and with a strong emotional arc. This could generate a lot of discussion, and while Mara is generally in a marginalized situation as an orphan, a servant, and a young person, Wallace does manage to include some pushback in the text. Some characters are/become disfigured and it seemed like this was also handled decently, although I defer to #ownvoice visibly disabled reviewers on this topic (please link your review in the comments if you have covered this).
This novel is generally appropriate for the middle grade audience it’s aimed at. Some scenes are a bit gruesome, so I would pre-read if you are thinking of giving this to a sensitive reader. There is mention of romance, exploitation of workers, cruelty and betrayal. Adoption, apprenticeship, and child servitude are major plot points, although in these cases the negative points are pushed back against by select characters. Family and belonging (or not) are major themes, so pre-read if fostering, adoption, abandonment, and parental death are likely to be triggers for your children.
Overall, I think this one gets a pass. Since the original Earthsea Cycle was so important to me as a young person, I continue to have a soft spot for magical fantasy novels set on islands. While the hair part bothered me and some of the topics introduced had me wary at first, the majority were resolved acceptably. The publisher recommends this for readers who have enjoyed Greenglass House, and while the settings couldn’t be more different, the themes and structure are similar enough that I would agree.