Lost Children of the Far Islands, by Emily Raabe (Knopf, April 2014), is a middle grade fantasy that takes the magical creatures of the oceans around the British Isles and transplants them to the coastal waters of Maine. It's the story of three siblings who find themselves visited one night by a mysterious messenger, and taken out to sea to the island far off the coast where their grandmother lives....where they find that they are shapeshifters, able to take seal form. And they find (much more disturbingly!) that their destiny is to take part in a age old battle against the darkest creature of them all--a destroyer who wants to ravage the oceans until there is no life left.
I found it a gripping, fast read that I was able to enjoy even in the midst of a frenzied, stressful week, and I appreciated the fact that it stands alone just fine (there's one unanswered question, but it doesn't materially affect this particular story).
When I read a book about children in our world facing off against ancient folkloric evil, I have a rubric (which I am putting into words for the first time here, so I might well be missing something obvious!) by which I judge it. Here's how Lost Children of the Far Islands came out in my mind.
1. Are the young protagonists distinct people, or simply child-shaped spaces? The kids here are two almost 11-year-old twins, a girl (Gus) and a boy (Leo), and their little sister, Ila. The story's told mostly from Gus's point of view, but the other two gets some page time as well. Gus is a girl primary character of the sort whose gender is a non-issue-- if you want your random boy to read books with girls, this is one that won't present problems in that regard.
All three kids are all individuals, especially young Ila, who is tremendously vibrant (she can also shapeshift into fox form, and I have a fondness for young fox shifters). There are tensions between the siblings that all of us who have siblings can relate to just fine. The kids have interests and personality traits that set them apart which for the most part become clear organically in the story, as opposed to traits that appear blatantly pinned on the character by the authorial hand.
2. Is there a reason for these particular kids being the ones that have to help save the world? I like to have a clear sense that only these particular characters are in the position to do what needs to be done, and I like it when "specialness" is balanced by a dash of reality. Harry Potter is convincing as a hero because he has so much support; likewise Will Stanton from The Dark is Rising couldn't have done squat alone. I get especially nervous when a prophecy is involved (as is the case here), not just because so many fictional prophecies are truly tortured verse (this one was unobjectionable), but because there's often not a satisfying reason why a particular character is the Destined Child of Prophecy. I think destiny is a fine thing, and can be a good source of character tension, but sometimes I can't help but feel that prophecies are window dressings. And if I'm not clear that there's a reason it's these particular kids by about a third of the way through the story, it's hard for me to care.
Lost Children of the Far Islands passes this test just fine. The kids aren't simply plunked down into the middle of Destiny...it sneaks up on them with a nicely growing sense of danger, and they have to discover secrets about their mother, and their ancient grandmother, before realizing what exactly they are part of. Likewise, the catalyst for confrontation comes not from the playing out of predestined roles, but because something goes wrong--there is a betrayal--which is more satisfying, I think.
3. Are the mythological elements made into something fresh and convincing? Does the fantasy make sense? I think in metaphors, and I'm finding myself thinking of this question in Christmasy terms--the single tree, made beautiful, as opposed to the sensory overwhelmingness of Christmas-tree land box stores, too shiny-full for any coherent story to emerge. This test is also passed just fine-- Emily Raabe doesn't try to bring every single last bit of Celtic mythology into the story--she sticks pretty much to the mythological creatures, and they fill the story just fine.
4. (This one might be just a matter of personal taste) Is there a reason for the places that are important in the story to be those places, and are the places described in such a way as to make clear pictures in my mind? My favorite part of this book was the time spent on the mysterious far island where the magical grandmother lives--it is a lovely island, with lost mundane treasures and a library holding a far from mundane book. It's not at all clear to me why all the magical opposition of good and evil should have ended up off the coast of Maine, instead of home in the British Isles, but this didn't bother me enough to be an actual objection.
So in short, Lost Children of the Far Island is a fine story, though best, I think, for those that don't already have tons and tons of fantasy under their belts already. It's one I'll offer to my ten year old, who has yet to meet any seal folk in his reading, but I don't think it's appeal goes far beyond that target audience, which isn't a criticism, just a reality. I think that to be a book for grown-ups to truly love, there has to be something of the numinous--the sort of magical beauty that leave the reader stunned--and that's a very rare thing indeed, so much so that I don't even include it in my list of mental criteria.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher