An 11-year-old girl caught in a dreamlike world searches for an enigmatic book to stop a kingdom from collapsing in Whittaker’s debut YA fantasy.
One day, young Isabella meets Nightwalker, a large, talking raven, who’s there to help her “begin [her] journey.” He leads her to a boat that drifts on a river that speaks and which eventually takes Isabella to the kingdom of the Lower World. There, King Stefan explains that the kingdom, a living entity, can communicate via paintings, and it’s telling the king that it’s in serious pain. The king asks Isabella, who’s depicted in one of the pictures, to find an important book; she initially declines but then reluctantly agrees. As the kingdom’s citizens are besieged by mysterious violence, Isabella learns of a dangerous man who’s trying to sell the book—who may also want to harm her. This YA book has an illusory quality from the beginning. There are talking animals, such as birds and fish; Nightwalker dabbles in magic; and everyone in the kingdom seems capable of telepathy. There’s a bit of mystery, too, involving an unnamed, horribly injured woman whom doctors have put into an induced coma. Details about the unknown woman ultimately come to light, including her link to Isabella. She, too, has a murky back story, and she has dreams of herself lying in a coffin. Whittaker’s fantasy world is filled with bizarre but tangible imagery, such as a cave of mirrors that reflect random people and things. Metaphor is in abundance, but Whittaker tackles it playfully; for example, in the town of Kronos, time is a “limited commodity” to the townsfolk, who treat Isabella as if she’s wasting theirs. The stories eventually merge into a resolution that answers all lingering questions—even the titular one. Although readers will likely predict the ending, it’s still undeniably satisfying.
A quirky, inventive tale from an author who respects her YA readers with intelligent prose.