Okay, so this was a quick-to-read MG fantasy story with a plot just complicated enough to add interest to the superb setting. This is a young MG story; the protagonists are just twelve, so the book is probably aimed at readers who are about ten years old. For readers of that age who like fantasy, Journey Across the Hidden Islands would probably be perfect, especially if the kid loves animals and loves the idea of talking winged lions. For older readers, it’s still got plenty of charm, especially for readers who still love the idea of talking winged lions (Hi!).
In either case, it gets a boost from the lovely cover, which accurately captures the feel of the story.
This story has some exciting moments, but basically this is a joyful story with an overall message that might be summed up as, Don’t be scared of life – keep going forward! Another message is perhaps something like, Life gets complicated, but people are trying to do their best. This was way, way nicer than a story where everybody turns out to be a villain. Come to think of it, I don’t think there are actually any villains in the entire story – just obstacles, monsters, and competing ideas about how various problems ought to be solved.
I already gave the setting two thumbs way up. Let me show just a tiny bit from the beginning:
Yellow light bathed the mountains, soaked the trees, and tinted the streams and waterfalls. In the sunlight, the water looked like liquid gold as it cascaded over the rocks and crashed into the mist that hid the valley below. Fire moths flew in and out of the mist, streaking it with glowing red-orange dust, and a pair of flying monkeys chased one another before disappearing into the soft whiteness.
Islands wreathed with mist, a palace suspended over the sea, fire moths, winged monkeys, winged cats, mer-minnows, waterhorses, it’s all just lovely. Though a tiny bit imperiled by earthquakes and monsters, and surrounded by a shimmering barrier of dragon magic that keeps out the larger world. I expect you won’t be surprised to know that the earthquakes are getting worse, that monsters are appearing where they really shouldn’t, that the barrier is failing, and that all this is tied together somehow.
What is my favorite part? The winged lions. And why do I love the winged lions so much? Because, VERY unusually, they are not servants, pets, or sidekicks. They’re equals, sometimes superiors. When Ji-Lin is afraid her teachers won’t like a recent stunt, she’s not thinking about human teachers – the masters of the school where she’s learning to be an Imperial guard are winged lions.
Ji-Lin is training to be her twin sister’s guard. Her sister, Seika, is the Imperial Heir. I liked them. They both feel a little confined by their preordained roles and their training, but, you know, they’re really okay with it, each well-suited to her role. The lion, Alejan, is also young. He wants to be a hero! They all want to be heroes, but especially Alejan, who knows lots of heroic tales. He loves the whole idea of being an Imperial Guard. The way each of these young characters is actually fine with their place in life is one element that makes this a low-angst, comfort read. All the young characters want to do well, to do things right, to be heroic, to protect each other and save people and save their world. They’re all supportive of each other. This includes the two princesses, the young lion, and a kid from the outside world who gets coopted into the quest (and turned out to be one of my favorite characters).
The sisters are close to each other. Their father is distant, almost absent, difficult to please. He sends them off on their quest to renew the ages-long bargain with the dragon of the Hidden Islands early, before they’re fully trained, but to be fair, though he knows there are problems, he probably has no idea how much danger he’s sending them into. So off the girls go on their quest to renew the bargain with the dragon, and of course many unexpected obstacles turn up in their way and nothing about the quest turns out to be routine. I’m now tempted to say too much, so I won’t. I’ll just say that Durst put together a nicely elegant story here, a story filled with wonderful fairy-tale scenery, plus winged lions. I liked it a lot. Now that I’ve read it, maybe I’ll give it to a school for their library, because it’s just the sort of story I would have loved when I was a kid.