Review of Lalani of the Distant Sea

Lalani of the Distant Sea
by Erin Entrada Kelly; illus. by Lian Cho
Intermediate    Greenwillow    388 pp.
9/19    978-0-06-274727-3    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-274729-7    $9.99

Kelly turns from the contemporary realistic settings of the Newbery-winning Hello, Universe (rev. 3/17) and of You Go First (rev. 3/18) to a tropical island–set fantasy world. Lalani lives on Sanlagita, an isolated island where gender roles are strictly defined; life is under the control of an all-powerful menyoro; and sailors hold the most esteemed positions in the village’s caste system, though tragically they leave in search of new lands and never return. When Lalani finds a foreign creature living on the island’s sacred mountain, she sets in motion a challenge to the menyoro’s authority, beginning with her departure from home. Over the course of her voyage, she encounters supernatural creatures, both allies and enemies, and brings about major changes to her world. Although Lalani is the protagonist, a strong cast of secondary characters, particularly her best friend Veyda and Veyda’s brother Hetsbi, are crucial to the story, making the novel more complex than a tale of an individual’s rebellion. Kelly does an excellent job of world-building, with folklore-like chapters interspersed throughout the story that both introduce the supernatural elements (“Imagine you’re an exquisite eel…You are Ditasa-Ulod. The water is your kingdom”) and build the book’s themes. The narrative voice keeps the tale firmly in its environment of magic and legends, maintaining the atmosphere of otherworldliness even as characters deal with bullying, abuse of power, and other problems with clear resonance in the real world.

From the November/December 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Sarah Rettger
Sarah Rettger is an independent bookseller in Boston.

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