This is perhaps one of the most unique adventure stories I’ve read it a long time. I really admire how authors can still come up with interesting and different frameworks for the same themes and tropes. Though we seem to read the same story a thousand times, creative and talented writers make it so we never notice that’s what’s happening. Traci Chee is one of those authors.
“Sefia knows what it means to survive. After her father is brutally murdered, she flees into the wilderness with her Aunt Nin, who teaches her to hunt, track, and steal. But when Nin is kidnapped, leaving Sefia completely alone, none of her survival skills can help her discover where Nin’s been taken, or if she’s even alive. The only clue to both her aunt’s disappearance and her father’s murder is the odd rectangular object her father left behind, an object she comes to realize is a book–a marvelous item unheard of in her otherwise illiterate society. With the help of this book, and the aid of a mysterious stranger with dark secrets of his own, Sefia sets out to rescue her aunt and find out what really happened the day her father was killed–and punish the people responsible.” —Indiebound
Books in which literacy is not common, or in which it’s repressed and discouraged, or in which books are banned–these are common things. A book in which books, or even written language as we know it, do not exist? That’s something new. One imagines you’d have to completely recreate the fabric (dare I say meaning?) of your fictional society to make it work. Of course, in this novel, books and reading do exist, but in secret. There is only one place in the whole world (that we know of so far), where books exist and people know how to read. And then, there are only a few people who know how to read (under ten, as far as I can tell). I love this premise, especially because it makes books the focal point of the story, and emphasizes their value.
The book that Sefia carries is a very special book–one that people are willing to go to great lengths to get their hands on. As the novel progresses, the readers themselves begin to realize what the book contains and how very precious it is. There are several different storylines that occur in the novel, and all of them slowly come together for a couple of very cool moments in which the reader realizes just how skillfully a web is woven with the different threads of plot.
This novel is full of a lot of really fun characters that I enjoyed getting to know. I wish Sefia weren’t so sad, but she’s had a hard life, and her reluctance to trust and allow herself to love are both understandable. She’s tough, but she’s scared. Everyone she’s ever loved has been taken from her, and that plays big in how she interacts with other people. Archer, if possible, is even more messed up than Sefia. His life not only includes loss but also abduction and being forced to commit violent acts. When they meet and for several weeks after, Archer cannot speak at all. Sefia and Archer develop a bond that goes beyond spoken language, communicating with signs, eye contact, and more. Their friendship is one that develops out of necessity but is not less enviable for it.
This book takes place on both land and sea, and I love all of the adventures of Captain Reed and his crew related in the Book. They venture to the western edge of the world and encounter numerous trials along the way. At first, their story seems completely out of context with Sefia and Archer’s journey, but once again the Book proves to be more than it seems. These guys were my personal favorite part of the book. Who doesn’t love a good piratey adventure?
This is a great work of YA fiction for fans of adventure stories and fantasy. Chee’s world-building and character development are world-class, and I really look forward to the next installment of this series.