With the help of magic, masquerade and a few dragon feathers, two cousins brought together under tragic circumstances go against the odds of society and propriety to claim their identities and also save their peaceful home from destruction. Debut author Rachel Neumeier reveals her blueprint behind the mystical literary landscape of The Floating Islands, what makes a rule breaker and just how good this book tastes.

Find more great fantasy & science fiction among our 2011 Best Books for Children.

The world you’ve created feels familiar even as it’s a completely original setting. How did you achieve that?

Tolounn was very definitely inspired by the ancient Roman Empire. I deliberately gave Tolounn very Roman attitudes toward military power, honor and the place of women in society because those attitudes “feel” right for a big, land-based Empire and because they contrasted beautifully with Island attitudes.

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Although the Floating Islands are meant to remind the reader of Greek city-states, everything about the Islands is affected by the fact that they are floating. They have never before had to worry about being conquered but also can’t very well indulge in conquest themselves. This encourages them to take a nonmilitary stance that no Greek city-state could have indulged.

Once I started with floating islands—that was the initial image that drove the whole thing—and decided that Island society would rigidly limit the acceptable roles of women, I just let myself play with the details. Tossing in spheres and cooking and, of course, dragons (with feathers) immediately gave the Islands an identity all their own.

The two protagonists struggle to find an identity. What can make this process easier?  

Oh, stubbornness certainly. Otherwise they’d just accept the roles others see as appropriate for them, rather than striving for something else.

Trei’s big advantage is that as soon as he arrives at the Islands he knows what he wants. He has to figure out answers he can live with to tough questions about loyalty, but he knows all the time what identity he actually wants to claim and that makes it easier for him.

Araenè has a tougher time in many ways because what she wants changes, and she has to decide whether to let that change happen or fight it. Her biggest boost definitely comes from Trei, who doesn’t expect her to fit into any Island role. He’d support any choice she makes and that really helps her.

Blatant rule breaking leads to brilliant outcomes here. Who is your favorite rule breaker?

Undoubtedly Prometheus. Diana Wynne Jones’ The Homeward Bounders made Prometheus into a real person for me many years ago—I really enjoyed the way she handled him as a character.

I want a rule breaker to be aiming at a definite “higher good” and willing to pay the price for breaking the rules. In other words, rule breakers you can really admire, not the sort of person who breaks rules to get something he himself wants.

You have culinary references throughout, and readers might be left with a growling stomach. What’s your preferred comfort food?

I do make tons of Indian and Thai food. One of my favorites—I made it twice last year and look forward to making it again one of these days—was the massamun chicken curry (from the blog Tigers & Strawberries). However, there’s nothing I like better than very dark chocolate to accompany a very good book.

Certain tools of magic in the story have “flavors” like cumin and ginger. What flavor does this book have?

The flavor of a fragrant curry from Northern India—lots of spices that all sing together.

Pub info:

The Floating Islands

Rachel Neumeier

Knopf / Feb. 8, 2011 / 9780375947059 / $16.99