The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier (2011)

There were a dozen of them — no, Trei saw as they approached: fourteen. Fifteen. They flew as geese fly in the fall, in a formation like a spear point. At first the shape the winged men made was stark as a rune against the empty sky, but as they approached the ship, they broke their formation, wheeled, and circled low. The morning light caught in the feathers of their glorious wings, crimson as blood, except for one man whose wings were black as grief (p 4).

floating_islandsAfter the death of Trei’s family, he travels from his hometown of Rounn in Tolounn to the Floating Island of Milendri. Rounn is industry. Women are free to pursue their interests unconstrained. The Floating Islands are majesty and magic. Women must be chaperoned and are barred from professional work.

When Trei sees the Kajuraihi flying on magical winds, he becomes sky-mad but will his half-island blood be enough for the dragons whose magic keeps the islands afloat? As Tolounn prepares for war, suspicion turns on Trei.

Trei finds an unlikely ally in his sarcastic cousin Aranè when he discovers she has been posing as a boy to attend school at the University. She is a gifted chef with a dream society will not allow her to obtain.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

There are shades of steampunk in this novel: the furnaces that power the mages who bring down the Islands and the magical feathers that bond with the bird feathers and attach to the Kajuraihi’s arms as wings.

Class and gender discrimination are ever-present.

Trei sat back in his chair and looked at her, still doubtful, as though she had changed shape under his gaze — not just from a girl to a boy, but from a known to an unknown. Araenè waited for him to say, Girls can’t be mages, but he said instead, “There might be a war coming — did you know?” (p 134)

The citizens of Milendri live in the First City, Second City, or Third City (where low-born girls are less restricted).

One aspect I wish was more developed was Araenè’s magecraft. We learn a little as the story progresses (and as Araenè must quickly learn it) but the rules are never truly defined and the possibilities explored in-depth.

I did enjoy the eventual romance. It’s subtle blooming three-fourths of the way in had me sprinting to the finish. It just felt right! I also thought the element of grief was well handled.

The story changed shape as I read and took me along unexpected paths, not all of which needed explanation. Very enjoyable.

Read more reviews:
Book Smugglers
Book Yurt
Kirkus (starred)
Tempting Persephone

Library copy | Alfred A. Knopf | February 8, 2011 | 400 pages | ISBN 978-0375847059 | $16.99

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