August 09, 2018


City of Islands. By Kali Wallace. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     A nicely paced novel with some genuinely interesting elements – placed, unfortunately, within some genuinely stereotypical ones – Kali Wallace’s City of Islands is most involving when it is less a fantasy adventure and more an exploration of the way in which such adventures are perceived. “Even the best legends were a weave of truth and lies, memories and wishes, and few people ever had a chance to revisit the foundations of their most cherished beliefs to learn how they withstood the test of time.” This perceptive comment, simply a narrative aside near the end of the book, speaks to what is best and most thoughtful in City of Islands: an approach that almost helps it rise above what is essentially a thoroughly standardized plot acted out by one-dimensional characters.

     The basic story here is typical preteen fantasy: a young orphan girl proves to have powers far beyond her imagining or the expectations of anyone else in the book, especially adults; and as she starts coming into those powers, she makes great things happen and single-handedly changes the world for the better. Surrounding the protagonist, 12-year-old Mara, are the usual friends/foils, notably an older girl named Izzy and a boy called Fish Hook. The adults are the usual blend of cruel and/or uncaring and/or feckless and/or ambition-driven; they include the ruling Lady of the Tides, a “bone-mage” named Bindy who takes Mara in after the girl’s parents die, and a dark sorcerer known as Lord of the Muck. The characters act and interact in entirely predictable ways that include arguments and fights, lies and betrayals, and the typical error in books of this sort of underestimating Mara and her abilities.

     City of Islands would be eminently forgettable were it not for the setting and some of the details of the narrative. Wallace’s world here is indeed a set of islands, each supposedly with its own character (although only a few are actually visited in the course of the book). In this world – and this is interesting – there is magic, yes, but it is so mundane a part of the world that people use it all the time, albeit in small ways. And it is evoked and shaped, and used to shape other things, by means of music – specifically songs. That is a very intriguing premise that could have drawn on the whole notion of the power of music to mold the mind, had Wallace wished; and even though she does not use it that way, preferring simply to have music be a tool for calling forth magic, itself a tool for accomplishing everyday tasks, the notion that music is something special pervades the book and lends it more character than most preteen fantasies possess.

     The concept here is that the City of Islands is a degraded form of a once-greater land created through potent magic by a race of water beings known only as the founders (not even a capital F). The magic that still exists is but an echo of what the founders possessed, and while most people are content to use what magic they can to aid their everyday lives, some power-seekers strive for ever-more-potent magic and go to great lengths to try to find or develop it. This is a standard power-hungry-adults trope, and the Lord of the Muck’s insistence on explaining his nefarious designs in detail to Mara, who has just shown up unexpectedly in his Frankensteinish laboratory, is almost laughably formulaic: young readers who have encountered nearly any cardboard-character bad guy anywhere will have heard speeches like his many times.

     They will have met heroic young people like Mara many times, too. In fact, Mara is a rather weak central character, constantly self-questioning and having no real idea of how anything in life works, even though Wallace says she is a determined-survivor type. For instance, Mara comes up with a clever idea to get her captive friends away from the Lord of the Muck, but when she has a chance to present the plan to the Lady of the Tides, it does not even occur to her to do so in a way that will pique the Lady’s interest, which is not in lowly servant Mara or her equally lowly friends: “She needed them to understand that rescuing Izzy and Fish Hook was more important than the Muck, more important than his magic, more important than anything he thought he could do.” A smarter protagonist would have focused on the exact opposite of this: how the Lady, by helping Mara, could outmaneuver the Muck and undermine his plans. But not Mara – who, rather unrealistically, gets the help she wants anyway.

     City of Islands moves along at a good pace and has a few genuinely intriguing scenes, such as one that echoes Pushkin’s The Stone Guest as Mara discovers a statue that seems to shed tears – a prelude to something more significant that is still to come. But the book has no truly compelling characters, and it suffers from a number of editing errors, such as one in which, while Mara and a girl named Feather search for the missing Fish Hook, there occurs this line: “‘We didn’t find her,’ Fish Hook said.” No – Feather said, Fish Hook being nowhere in the scene. A little more care in editing would have been in order here. Even then, though, City of Islands would be a pleasantly involving, sometimes dramatic adventure that fits firmly in the preteen-fantasy genre while bringing very little new to it. It is not one of a kind but one among many of its kind.

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