YA Weekend: The Reader by Traci Chee
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of Sea of Ink and Gold
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (September 13, 2016)
Length: 448 pages
I was totally blown away by The Reader. Yes, I’d wanted to check it out after learning that it was a “book about books”, but what I got was simply far beyond anything I expected or imagined. There’s honestly nothing I love more than being surprised when it comes to YA, and this book dazzled me in all the ways that counted, drawing me in with fantastic writing, compelling characters, and a wildly imaginative story.
The Reader introduces us to Sefia, a young girl traveling with her Aunt Nin through the wilderness of Kelanna. The two of them have been on the run for years, after the brutal murder of Sefia’s father at the hands of a mysterious group of assassins. They’ve survived so far by living off the land, hunting for meat and furs, trading at towns, and just plain stealing. That is, until one day Sefia makes a mistake, and attracts the attention of the guard. This also alerts the assassins who have been hunting them, and as a result, Aunt Nin is captured and taken away.
For the next few years, Sefia tries to track down her aunt, using the only clue available to her—an odd, rectangular object that her father left to her after he died. Somehow, Sefia knows that this thing is the reason why she and Nin had been targeted. Later, our protagonist learns that this strange object is called a book, and struggles to remember the lessons that her parents had taught her when she was little. In a world where the written word means magic, and magic means power, there are those whose best interest lies in keeping society illiterate. But through painstaking effort, Sefia is able to piece together the mysteries of her past and begin comprehending the writing in the book, reading the stories within.
I’m reluctant to reveal much more of the story, since a lot of my enjoyment came from the surprise. The plot will seem disjointed at first, leaping from place to place, time to time, but rest assured everything will come together in the end. Still, even when I found the first half of this book difficult to understand, there was plenty to keep me hooked. The flow of the narrative was just so smooth and natural that even as we jumped around, I never felt like I was in over my head. The Reader is like a puzzle, and the book gradually doles out the clues until we can see how all the pieces fit together. Like I said, there are many original ideas in here, including the very way this story is told—like using creative structure, or presenting the text in clever ways. I have to say the art direction for this novel is extremely well done.
The characters are also wonderful, and their relationships are genuinely interesting. At an early point in her journey, Sefia rescues a young man from his captors. He is unable to speak and therefore he can’t tell Sefia anything about himself, so she ends up calling him Archer. A sweet friendship develops between the two as they travel together, which eventually blossoms into something more. Slow-burn romances are always my favorite, and Sefia and Archer’s really made sense to me. Because Archer can’t talk, they have to communicate in other ways, and to me that also made their interactions more meaningful. Furthermore, there’s a significant part of this book that takes place on the high seas, and as you know, I love myself some maritime fantasy. This story seems to encompass a whole lot—pirates, assassins, magic, and more—but everything ties perfectly together by its conclusion.
I also loved Traci Chee’s writing. It’s rich with description but very clean at the same time, without the flowery prose I often see in YA debuts. She really has a way with words, bringing the magic and epic adventure to life. What I enjoyed most about The Reader was that I often couldn’t predict where it was going. In a genre that is often filled with clichés and the recycling of old tropes, I can’t tell you what a breath of fresh air this was to me. Even if I hadn’t loved this book, I think I’d be hard-pressed to find much fault with the author’s writing or her unique vision.
I’m often wary about books with lots of hype, but in this case I felt the excitement and praise was well deserved. The Reader might just be my favorite YA read of the year.