Today on the blog, I’m reviewing a book that made it onto my most anticipated reads of 2018 list!
Author(s): Makiia Lucier
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)
Publication date: 10th April 2018
Series or standalone?: series (duology, #1)
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Nineteen-year-old Elias is a royal explorer, a skilled mapmaker, and the oldest friend of the new king of del Mar. Soon he’ll embark on an expedition into uncharted waters – the adventure of a lifetime. Then a long-ago tragedy comes back into the light.
The people of St. John del Mar have never recovered from the loss of their boy princes eighteen years ago. But when two maps surface, each bearing the same hidden riddle, troubling questions arise. What really happened to the young heirs? And why do the maps appear to be drawn by Lord Antoni, Elias’s father, who vanished on that same fateful day? Drawn into a web of secrets, Elias will have to use his wits and guard his back. Some truths are better left buried – and an unknown enemy lurks at every turn.
In an effort to read more fantasy this spring and find a new-to-me author to try out amid a crop of familiar names and big sequels, I was pleased to pick up Isle of Blood and Stone soon after I included it on my most anticipated YA reads of 2018 list. I really liked the premise – lost royalty! mapmakers! explorers! an island kingdom! a mystery! – and, I am delighted to report, there’s much about the book which lives up to that appeal.
Page-turning, smartly written and consistently intriguing, Isle of Blood and Stone centres on cartographer Elias’ search for his island’s long lost princes and the father he never got the chance to know. The plot is pacy, well constructed and for the most part believable, with plenty of twists I didn’t see coming. This is historical fantasy with only the lightest of emphases on the historical, but plenty of action and just enough worldbuilding – the spirit-soaked forest, the blue indigo fire, the network of islands – to keep you reading.
I particularly enjoyed the focus on mapmaking and the glimpses of the workings of a fantasy society – not just dependent on chosen ones or magic wands, Cortes is a city that relies on trade and signing letters and superstition. There are emissaries, apprentices, navigators, merchants, coin-counters. Even the tax collector gets an interesting, if brief, flash of story. The latter is one of the book’s occasional nods to female characters in unusual positions of power, an idea that could have been explored even further.
Elias, Ulises and Mercedes make for a suitable trio of leads: the stubborn but caring mapmaker, the world-heavy young king, the sharp and defensive emissary. A busy supporting cast made the book vibrant, from the forbidding Commander Aimon to the mysterious Brother Francis. The lively and watchful Reyna, who wants to be a mapmaker like Elias, is a stand-out. She was just the start of one of my favourite features of the book: families and kids in a fictional world that otherwise leans rather heavily on the storytelling trope of the orphan or dead parent. It would have been pretty standard for Elias’ mother Sabine, for example, to become an outcast widow, but instead she’s remarried. As well as honourary sister Reyna, Elias has younger half-siblings Nieve, Lea and Jonas, and a positive stepfather figure in jovial Lord Isidore.
There’s a romance built on friendship for Elias and Mercedes, too. The book doesn’t really go for extraneous scenes, however, and while the implications are that they’ve known each other for a long time, building up the giddiness and warmth of romance would have pleased here. Indeed, that’s probably the only major gripe I have with Isle of Blood and Stone: it needed just a little more description, a little more romance, a little more exploration – even if that would mean slowing down. The writing style isn’t elaborate or noticeably quotable, and the cast probably aren’t the most memorable in fantasy, either.
However, the story as a whole is satisfying and gripping. The blurb makes it sound somewhat dark but the tone and style are often approachable. Once you get past the first few chapters, the story really flies by (around 260 pages, at least in my Netgalley edition). If you’re looking for YA fantasy that’s not quite as time consuming as books by Laini Taylor or Sarah J. Maas, this could be an alternative for you. There’s a sense of (no spoilers) multiple endings and chasing things up for several characters, but there’s room for more adventure in the sequel. I’m hoping that provides an opportunity for a little more worldbuilding depth and richnesss – Why are there sea serpents? What’s with all the saints? What are all these other fictional lands mentioned like? – to be explored.
The islands and cartographers of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything meet the pacy YA fantasy of the likes of Lori M. Lee and Sara Raasch in Makiia Lucier’s first foray into the genre. It has some pitfalls, but I read it in one sitting and it’s full of twists.