First published in 2011, Rachel Neumeier’s young adult fantasy novel The Floating Islands was received with acclaim: it was a Junior Library Guild selection and a Kirkus Best Children’s Book of the Year, chosen for the ALA-YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Book list, and recommended on the ALA Amelia Bloomer list of feminist literature. Though currently a standalone that completes the two main protagonists’ story arcs, it does leave much of the setting open for further exploration and the author does have plans for a sequel to this book with floating islands, dragons of fire and air, magic, and food references (seriously, do not read this while hungry).

Trei’s long journey from Toulounn to the Floating Islands is fraught with grief. When he returned home after spending the summer with his aunt and uncle, he found it buried in ash after a nearby mount erupted—his father, mother, and sister all buried with it. After this, he went back to the only other family he knew, but despite always having seemed fond of Trei in the past, his uncle refused to make his half-Islander nephew part of his household and pay the tax necessary for him to become a citizen of Toulounn, as Trei’s father would have done once he was of age. Instead, he gave Trei some money, leaving him to make the trip alone to his mother’s family on the distant Floating Islands, held aloft by sky dragon magic off the southwestern coast of Toulounn.

In his despair, Trei barely notices anything on his voyage—until he catches his first glimpse of the wondrous Floating Islands and the winged men flying overhead, also aided by sky dragon magic. Trei immediately realizes he must become one of these fliers, and after his Islander relatives take him in, his uncle helps him set up an audition to join their ranks even though being half-Toulounnese may be an obstacle in achieving this goal.

Araenè, Trei’s cousin, initially resents the new addition to her household since it makes finding the privacy necessary to sneak out of the house and attend classes in the guise of a boy more difficult for her. As a talented cook, Araenè has always wanted to become a chef, but girls are not supposed to attend lectures or do anything other than marry once they reach womanhood. However, she finds a supportive ally in Trei when he discovers her subterfuge—though his sister never had the same problem with pursuing her art, he thinks she would have done the same as Araenè under the circumstances, and this shared secret binds the two closer in friendship.

When Toulounn sets its sights on conquering the Floating Islands, Trei and Araenè are in unique positions to work together for the good of the Floating Islands: Trei, as one of the novices gifted with air magic by the sky dragons and someone with knowledge of Toulounn, and Araenè, in her role as the boy Arei and an apprentice to a master of the hidden school of magic who discovered she had the mage gift. However, in order to succeed, each of them must overcome a personal hurdle: Trei, caught between loyalty to his homeland and his new home, and Araenè, struggling with whether or not to trust her new mentor.

The Floating Islands contains some familiar themes—such as finding one’s place in the world while persevering against the constraints of social roles defined by criteria outside one’s control—yet the backdrop of the setting makes it wholly unique. It’s also a wonderful story, largely uplifting and hopeful (though there is death and tragedy that is not ignored by the characters affected, it doesn’t dwell too much on the sadder parts and is more focused on moving forward afterward). Even so, I find myself conflicted about this novel: I did love the world and story and would be likely to read any sequels, but I also thought it had stock characters, dull narrative and dialogue, and uneven pacing.

In my opinion, the highlight of the novel is the setting and all the fantastic elements. It’s full of magic with the air dragons responsible for both the unusually buoyant nature of the islands and some of its people, fire dragons, and a hidden mage school with friendly doors that appear and tend to open to somewhere one needs to be. Although the story arc felt complete, it seemed to leave a lot of questions unanswered for a standalone novel so I was glad to discover that a sequel is planned. There’s much left to learn about the dragons, particularly the relationships between the different types and their history with the islands, and the workings of magic.

There are some lovely descriptions of the more fantastic aspects, such as the wonder of the Floating Islands and flight, but I also felt the narrative was often bogged down by too much description while glossing over parts I wanted to know more about (such as the details of knowledge of mathematics being necessary for magic). Trei and Araenè’s voices sounded similar with lots of internal monologue about what they were doing or what they should do filled with italics for emphasis, and though there was a lot of telling about their individuality, there wasn’t much showing they had distinct personalities through their rather serious narrations. The dialogue was probably intended to sound like the way people actually talk, filled with ums and wells and elliptic pauses and the overuse of phrases like “do you see,” but this also didn’t really work for me since I prefer reading smoother dialogue even though I realize this style is more realistic.

Although both Trei and Araenè are likable and sympathetic characters, I didn’t find either of them terribly compelling aside from their circumstances. Trei seemed a little more fleshed out to me than his cousin, probably due to the fact that he does have the bigger role in the story. He’s brave and empathetic, and his tale shows his grief and loss as he’s haunted by nightmares about the disaster that destroyed his home and the difficulty of being caught between loyalty to his previous homeland and his new nation. Araenè is rebellious, courageous, and determined, but other than a few personality traits, it seemed she was primarily defined by her love of cooking. Though she could have had more dimension as a character, this did make the story more unusual and memorable. I thought it was a nice twist to read about a girl who wasn’t trying to attain one of the more traditional goals denied girls, such as becoming a warrior, but a girl who simply wanted to be a chef: the chance to actually study the art and make a career of it instead of only cooking for her family. Even Araenè’s mage talent is related to food since she identifies magic by different smells, such as lemon, ginger, nutmeg, and fenugreek. I actually thought tying her magic to different scents was an interesting concept, but these descriptions also became rather repetitive quickly.

The secondary characters are mostly interchangeable, and I found it difficult to keep track of the other students in the mage school and the boys Trei trained alongside. The only one who stood out was Trei’s friend Ceirfei, who just wanted to be treated the same as all the other fliers despite his elevated status.

The Floating Islands is a great story with some originality, and the world is filled with wonder with its islands kept afloat by dragons and magical schools. However, I did think there were a few things holding it back from its full potential: the conclusion was rushed compared to the middle, which dragged at times; the narrative and dialogue were not entirely to my taste despite some lovely prose; and the two main characters did not show a lot of depth through their voices. It’s a book I found interesting but not gripping, yet I probably will read the planned sequel when it’s available because of the amazing setting and the touches that do make this book stand out as different.

My Rating: 6.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the author.

This book is May’s selection from a poll on Patreon.