This is a book I’ve been saving the whole season, saving until the end because I knew I’d love it and I wanted to savor it. I’m not alone in loving it — it has four stars, it’s on the SLJ Mothership’s year end list, and it’s fantasy, and there’s action, and there are pirates, and it’s atmospheric and beautiful, and there are magical reading powers, and that cover is so wow, and and AND! What can I say? Sometimes you feel like possibly a book was designed, down to a molecular level, to be a You Book. This is one of those times for me. But now that I’ve actually read it, and sat with it for a bit, I’m going to do my best and try to have a balanced take for our Printzly purposes.
Chee’s writing is strong. She definitely gives Sefia the main role in the story, but shifts perspective (third person limited) to a few other characters. They’re all distinctive voices and immediately recognizable. She takes care in her descriptions to keep readers engaged, and, despite a large cast, the characters are generally sympathetic.
Overall, it’s a strong start to the series. Chee is writing to celebrate reading and the written word; she provides stories within stories throughout that work in multiple layers, providing depth and intricacy to the narrative. The short stories form a side story that is incorporated smoothly into the novel; it all adds up. We read alongside Sefia, and make the meaning alongside her as well.
The thematic exploration of books, reading, and stories is what’s most memorable here, and it’s incredibly satisfying. We get an exploration of the power of story to conceal and reveal, and the ways that stories become memory and reality. In addition, there’s quite a bit of playfulness. Chee works in clues and games, with messages in the page numbers. And the design adds to this sense of unlocking a mystery — smudged pages, fingerprints and other graphic elements add to the atmosphere. Readers will read and connect along with Sefia.
This isn’t a perfect read. With 400+ pages, there are a few points where the narrative drags. It’s especially noticeable after a pacey and gripping start; Chee doesn’t quite consistently reestablish that strong flow until things come together at the end. Some of the world building isn’t fully textured; it seems slightly simplistic as a take on a society where there is no reading which causes some pieces of the setting to feel a little loose. The setting is not quite as specific and deeply realized as it could be. I suspect some of the characterization might feel a bit thin, too, particularly if (unlike me), you’re not reading this sympathetically.
This is a strong title that might not quite have what it takes to be in the final five once all is said and done at the table. Still, it’s a bold story, with an explicitly diverse cast — diverse epic fantasy! Super important! Happy to see! Can’t wait to booktalk! — and once it finds its way into one reader’s hands, I suspect it won’t stay on the shelf long at all. And as a debut, I know I’ll be looking for Chee’s next entry to read and share.
But maybe you want to swashbuckle on in here and tell me why it will be in the final five? (I would not so secretly love that. Please do that. In the comments.)