Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book Review: The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

I have always wanted to be able to fly...not in a plane. Anyone can do that. I've always wanted to just be able to spread my arms and soar on the wind, carefully adjusting my height and speed by tilting my body or arms and catching rising warm air to push me higher and higher. That is, in fact, how I fly in my dreams. And that is how Trei learns to fly using the kajurahi wings on the Floating Islands.

It was a bit of a coin toss whether Trei would be able to join the kajurahi (the band of island flyers with special wind-sight) at all. He was, after all, only half islander, and that on his mother's side. But fortunately for him, the kajura did not have the power to choose those who would join the novitiate. That was entirely up to the wind dragons, who lend their power for the kajurahi to use for flying.

Rachel Neumeier's book, The Floating Islands, is a fantastic combination of inventive fantasy lore and the much more real-world problem of pending international battle. For the land where Trei was born (Tolounn) is famous for its army that always follows orders and will stop at nothing. The emperors are hungry for more conquests, but the Floating Islands stand in the way. But when they figure out a way for their mages to harness the energy from huge steam engines, they attack the Floating Islands, and push away (using magic) the wind dragons, which are keep the islands afloat. The islands begin to sink, and the Tolounnese soldiers throw up ladders to invade.

But what can Trei and his small band of kajurai novices do? And for that matter, what is Trei's cousin Araene, supposed to do? They are both orphans, the only family that they have is each other. But girls live a very regulated life on the islands, and Araene has a hard decision to make when her parents die of the fever. Should she let Trei leave the kajurahi and his dream of flying in order to be her guard and chaperone? In a moment of confidence, Araene chops off her hair, "becomes" a boy, and uses her incipient magical ability to join the mage's school. She always wanted to be a chef, but when she started tasting magic as various spices and flavors, she decides that whatever it might lead to, she does want to stifle her new ability. But when she arrives at the school, she promptly breaks all the rules, the most serious of which was taking an egg from the fire dragon living in the heart of the school and promising to quicken the young dragon. And yet, this very egg, Araene's magical ability, and Trei's flying ability coupled with his past knowledge of Tolounnese manners might be just what the Floating Islands need to regain and establish their independence from the ambitious Tolounnese.

It is truly beautiful watching how Trei and Araene learn to love and look out for one another--not common among teenagers, but somehow realistic and inspiring in this story. They don't always make the best decisions, but they are bold and brave when they realize what must be done, even if it means giving up their freedom and risking their lives. I would definitely recommend this new book to any and all fantasy lovers.

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