Today on the blog, it’s time to dive back into middle grade with this latest review…
Author(s): Catherine Doyle
Publication date: 12th July 2018
Category: children’s fiction, middle grade
Genre(s): fantasy, magical realism
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a proof copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
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Fionn Boyle and his older sister Tara have been sent to stay with their grandfather on the tiny Irish island of Arranmore for the summer. Fionn has never met his grandfather before – an eccentric old man who lives in a cottage brimming with candles – though he knows his islander ancestors have long lived in tandem with the sea, a force city-born Fionn is afraid of.
Unbeknownst to Fionn, an old magic is stirring deep inside the layers of Arranmore. A dark storm is coming. The same kind of storm that took his father twelve years ago. To protect his family, Fionn must embrace his destiny as an heir to the storm keepers, for their island is calling out to him…
Catherine Doyle made her début as one of the bolder contributors to Irish young adult fiction with the Blood for Blood trilogy, a teen twist on movies like The Godfather set in the dark, dangerous underworld of the Mafia, but her first middle grade offering, The Storm Keeper’s Island, couldn’t be further from the blood-soaked streets of Chicago. With the temperamental skies and sea-salt tang of the island of Arranmore, it seems that Catherine Doyle has come home.
The island setting is undoubtedly one of the book’s stand-out features. Doyle offers up vivid, whirling descriptions, adding to an already interesting landscape an ancient mystery which stirs as soon as Fionn sets foot on its windswept shores. On Doyle’s Arranmore, tea is a must and magic is everywhere. This elemental magic is protected by a storm keeper and, in one of my favourite touches, gathered amid memories in the colourful array of candles Fionn’s grandfather Malachy makes by hand. The island is steeped in history, from miraculous lifeboat rescues to strange caves.
The book’s higher powers, Dagda and Morrigan, are plucked straight from Irish mythology, and while the pairing is not a new one, the appeal of the dichotomy is understandable (if you’ve read this post, you’ll know I have something of a soft spot for The Dagda). There are hints of fantastical worldbuilding – water-dwelling merrow, a flying horse identifiable to those literate in Irish mythological cycles – but there’s definitely a sense that this is an opening gambit written with laying groundwork in mind. Any sequels worth their salt will delve deeper into the rich and complex seam of myth teased here.
The story is enchanting enough to keep you reading through info-dumping and erratic pacing; explaining the fate of the SS Stolwijk before Finn sees it play out, for instance, sucks the tension out of what would otherwise be a strong sequence. As I was reading I couldn’t help feeling that I knew there was a plot in there somewhere, but it just kept getting caught up in an ill-defined structural muddle. It needed more textured secondary characters and more developed motive for the villains. One seemed to be mainly characterised as ‘bearded’ (“Where is he off to with a beard that big, anyway?”). And, while this may be a bit niche, making more use of the Irish language could have added to the magic, as the real-life Arranmore, just off the coast of Donegal, is known for its Irish-speaking.
Still, The Storm Keeper’s Island is a fast read and practically unputdownable. I liked the focus on the relationship between Fionn and his grandfather (I’d only recently written this post about grandparents in YA and teen fiction). I was racing to get to any scenes which expanded on Fionn and his father, Cormac, one of the book’s most compelling emotional cornerstones. A dramatic, action-packed finale – always one of Doyle’s strong suits – provides hope of a series with plenty more to give.
The Storm Keeper’s Island isn’t the most subtle of books, but it is a vivid, energetic adventure with a great setting. This is magical realism-turned-fantasy for younger fans of Martin Stewart’s Riverkeep, Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor.