I don't consider myself a hardcore fantasy reader, but even I recognize that Rachel Neumeier's The Floating Islands contains more than a few familiar fantasy tropes. So I was pleased to discover that the world Neumeier creates—the sense of culture and history she evokes—and her elegantly luminous prose combine to form a quietly wonderful book.
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After a volcanic eruption kills his immediate family, and he’s subsequently turned away by his paternal uncle, the orphaned Trei's only option is to leave northern Tolounn and travel to the Floating Islands in the hope that his mother's brother will take him in. The journey by ship is long but passes in a blur of grief until Trei's first glimpse of the Floating Islands—and its kajuraihi. From the moment he sees the kajuraihi, men who fly with winged contraptions bound to their arms and bodies, using the same dragon magic that keeps the Floating Islands aloft, Trei yearns to join their ranks.
The Floating Islands are very unlike Tolounn. However, for all the color and vibrancy of the place, the lives of the Islands' girls are much more constrained than those of Tolounn. Trei is welcomed into his uncle's family in Milendri, the largest of the Floating Islands, but he can't help but notice how his cousin, Araenè, is stifled by the lack of opportunities available to girls.
Araenè is a gifted cook. If she were a boy, she'd be free to attend lectures at the university, perhaps even work in the king's kitchens one day. As a girl, she will merely make her future husband a lucky man. When she discovers that she has a mage gift, Araenè does not tell anyone at first. What's the point, she figures, since only boys attend mage school?
There are other differences between the countries as well. Tolounn is more powerful than the Floating Islands, much larger and harbors imperial ambitions. It is thought that Tolounn's Little Emperor has his eye on Cen Periven, across the sea from Tolounn, but the Floating Islands are in its way. As Trei learns to fly (and, more importantly, land) and Araenè, disguised as a boy, begins her mage studies, they are unaware that they will soon become central figures in defending the Floating Islands.
As protagonists, Trei and Araenè are not atypical, but they are sympathetic characters, well developed and easy to root for. By opening with Trei's journey to the Floating Islands, then following both Trei and Araenè as novices in flying and mage work, the reader acquires knowledge of the world along with the characters. Readers who want action and excitement from the start may find this boring or slow, especially since the pacing for much of the novel is leisurely and concerned more with world-building and introducing the (largely internal) journeys undertaken by Trei and Araenè. However, I found it a pleasure to read. I liked Neumeier’s use of sensory detail, such as the bright colors of the Floating Islands, and how food and flavors are used to convey cultural aspects while also being an essential part of the story. Neumeier's prose isn't vibrant or dynamic, but it is purposeful. The book doesn't feel bloated or filled with extraneous information. Instead, every sentence serves a purpose, whether to develop the world-building, illuminate characters or to explain magic just enough to enlighten without overburdening.
Considering the number of first-person narratives in teen fiction these days, it’s refreshing that chapters alternate between Trei and Araenè's storylines, and that Neumeier writes in a limited third-person point-of-view. Plus, it's a standalone fantasy! A quite lovely, character-driven fantasy with eventual action, political conflict and a hint of romance.
Trisha Murakami is a young adult librarian in Hawaii and blogs at The YA YA YAs.