Hailing from landlocked Colorado, seascapes always held an almost mystic allure for Kali Wallace. That lingering childhood fascination, combined with a Ph.D in geophysics, had been steering Wallace towards the world she envisions in City of Islands—a city spread out across the sea, a culture defined by the natural world it inhabits—but it took quite some time for the story to emerge in a way that felt true.
Wallace initially wrote City of Islands as a National Novel Writing Month project. It was the first time she tried to write a novel, and she made it to 50,000 words but says the writing was “terrible.” There were parts of it that she felt had potential, but it wasn’t until years later and the publication of two young adult books that she realized what had been off with that first version. “Having written for teenagers and being in the community of people who write about children for children, I realized that this was a magical adventure story about a young girl. Once I realized that, it was actually pretty easy to fit the story I thought I was trying to tell into this new framework.”
City of Islands centers around 12-year-old Mara, a young girl in a society where power and the magical knowledge that allows one to consolidate it is jealously guarded by the elite. Raised by one mage (a practitioner of magic) following the death of her parents, and now in the employ of another, Mara has always been fascinated by magic and admired those who wield it so effectively—especially the legendary race of founders who carved the islands and palaces that dot them through the power of their song. Yet as the story progresses, readers witness a formative understanding take root within the ambitious protagonist: the realization that adults can let her down.
“It was very deliberate,” Wallace says of including that aspect in Mara’s story, “because I think it's such an important thing to explore, especially for girls in the world that we're in today, which is frightening, and full of challenges for girls trying to navigate a world that is not always very kind to them. Growing up for many girls includes realizing that the people who were telling them how to be in the world maybe don’t always have their best interests at heart.”
For Mara, however, that traumatic if necessary step in growing up comes with another, more affirming appreciation of the power of chosen family. “There were versions of this novel that had bleaker endings,” Wallace says with a laugh, “and I acknowledge that it has a little bit of a Disney ending.” But she wanted kids reading her story, especially young girls, to come away with the feeling that things can be okay in the end; that even with the betrayals from adults in her life, Mara could end up with a family for herself. “Part of navigating a place in the world,” she continues, “is finding the people who can and will be a family, even if it’s not your blood family, or official family.”
City of Islands is an entertaining and enthralling page turner that draws the reader deep into a world of myth and mystery — and that’s important for Wallace. “I hope kids have fun reading this,” she says, “because I think it is important for stories to be fun for kids, for young readers, so they can get lost in books like I did. But on a deeper level,” she adds, “I hope that kids can see that there are ways to find your people and find your place and find what you're good at, even in a world that is incredibly unfair and seems to be very much stacked against you.”
James Feder is a writer based in Tel Aviv.