The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

When Trei loses his family in a tragic disaster, he must search out distant relatives in a new land. The Floating Islands are unlike anything Trei has ever seen: stunning, majestic, and graced with kajurai, men who soar the skies with wings.

Trei is instantly sky-mad, and desperate to be a kajurai himself.  The only one who fully understands his passion is Araené, his newfound cousin.  Prickly, sarcastic, and gifted, Araené has a secret of her own . . . a dream a girl cannot attain.

Trei and Araené quickly become conspirators as they pursue their individual paths.  But neither suspects that their lives will be deeply entwined, and that the fate of the Floating Islands will lie in their hands. . . .

Filled with rich language, and told in alternating voices, The Floating Islands is an all-encompassing young adult fantasy read.

I really liked the parallel between Trei and Araené’s individual struggles regarding the roles they were intended to fill and the ones they’ve chosen instead. In my eyes, Trei’s struggle is the more difficult one to overcome. Being half Toulounnese and half Islander, raised in Toulounn and having been relocated to the Floating Islands after the destruction of his family, Trei doesn’t know which nation he’s supposed to identify with and whether he should even be allowed to do so with whichever one he chooses. He’s accepted by the wind dragons to train to become a kajurai, but part of him can’t help but sympathize and identify with Toulounn’s attack on the Islands because he had never before questioned the inevitability or rightness of Toulounn as a conquering nation. I appreciated how this never become a cut-and-dry problem and even when Trei takes action against Toulounn on behalf of the Floating Islands, it’s not because he now thinks Toulunn is completely evil, but because the Floating Islands are where he has chosen to call home.

Araené, on the other hand, is caught between being the upper-class daughter she’s expected to be, the chef she wants to become, and the mage she seems to be developing into. The latter two require her to be male, and so she takes on that role to learn how to become that mage. While Trei is more confused and conflicted than anything else, Araené is fully bitter that this is what she was born into and her lot in life won’t change unless she drastically changes it herself.

The author’s writing was so. pretty. During the week that I was reading this, I hadn’t been in the mood to read any text for fun that required me to read slowly and pay attention (which meant I put the book aside more often than I meant to), but really, once I stopped trying to speed through and started lying back and appreciating the words she used and the descriptions she came up with, I fell in love. The language isn’t obviously obtuse or flowery, but the author has a way of stringing words together to describe flying, magic, dragons, and even the tastes Araené experiences in a uniquely evocative way. Just… gah. I almost want to apologize to the author for not reading this at a more optimal time when I would have taken all the time I needed to fully absorb how beautifully crafted her writing is.

I will say that the world in this book felt strange in some aspects, largely in that it was clear the author had come up with a very detailed plan for how this world works, what the different countries are like, cultures, outlooks on life, etc, but decided to only reveal a little bit of that information in the book. For example, Toulounn prides itself on its military strength, sees war as a game, and views conquering other countries as the natural order of things. “Toulounn soldiers are the best in the world,” goes the saying. But the way these facts were applied felt reductive, like any ambiguity or complexity was erased. Maybe I just can’t buy the existence of a conquering nation that has no sign of court or military intrigue whatsoever and that all of the military personnel and even the Little Emperor himself, would be fully honest and forthright to the point of fully disclosing future plans on conquering the Floating Islands a second time after being defeated.

Similarly, barely anything is mentioned about the difference in male and female roles in the Floating Islands, beyond the fact that women of good family learn to keep house, get married, aren’t schooled in any way, and supposedly aren’t mages. But when Araené learns she has the ability to become a mage, she doesn’t ask why she has the power in the first place. Obviously, the fact that she’s female is a huge impediment and something she’s very keen to hide, but it felt odd that she never stopped and questioned why on earth she was a mage when presumably she would have learned that all mages are male and no female mages exist or have existed. And then when all of her (male) compatriots and teachers find out she’s female, none of them go, “WTF, women aren’t mages!” and one of them even says, “Oh yeah, female mages actually existed a long time ago.” So… why was the gender divide even important in the first place?

This also extended to events such as the volcano that wiped out Trei’s family, the sickness that killed off Araené’s, the politics of the Floating Islands, and even the religion that seems to be shared by both them and Toulounn. I can understand not going into huge detail behind the first two things – they happened immediately and inexplicably and major, catastrophic events like that happen. But with everything else, it kept feeling like the author was doling out only as much detail as she needed to and not a drop more. By the end of the book, this was aggravating; the story ended up being simultaneously complex and simplistic.

All that being said, I do think Rachel Neumeier is a lovely writer and I do want to read more of her books. Trei and Araené were well-drawn characters and when she actually described and fleshed out the world she created, it was solid, detailed, and magical. I will probably read her other books during times when I am not drowning in work (which means I shouldn’t read them when the school year starts up again because Thesis!)

Disclosure – library

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