Seika and Ji-Lin are the twelve year old princesses of the Hidden Islands, a group of a hundred islands cut off from the rest of the world by a magical barrier created by an ancient volcano dragon. Seika is the heir to the throne, while Ji-Lin is being trained as an imperial guard, dedicated to protecting her sister from any danger. For the past year they’ve been separated while Ji-Lin is in training at a mountain temple, with the winged, talking lion Alejan as her partner and closest friend.
Ji-Lin’s training is unexpectedly cut short when she is called to return to the imperial city. The emperor, their father, tells Seika and Ji-Lin that the next day they will begin the ritual five-day-long Emperor’s Journey to visit the Dragon’s Shrine. There they will renew the traditional bargain with the volcano dragon to keep the barrier around the islands, which protects their land against invaders and koji, vicious magical monsters feared by the people. Seika and Ji-Lin are mystified ― they didn’t expect to take the Emperor’s Journey until they were much older ― but obedient. Besides, they’re thrilled to be able to spend time together again after a year apart, and they’ll be flying through the air on the back of Alejan as they journey.
But their epic journey turns unexpectedly dangerous: the islands are being shaken by earthquakes, and their magical barrier is beginning to break down. As Ji-Lin, Seika, and Alejan travel from island to island, they tangle not only with flying koji monsters and some semi-piratical explorers who’ve slipped through the failing barrier, but also with the expectations of their strict royal father and the breaking of traditions and expectations.
Journey Across the Hidden Islands (2017), by Sarah Beth Durst, is an enchanting middle grade fantasy, a journey adventure that celebrates the bond of sisterhood and the need to take chances in life. The setting is inspired by feudal Japan, but elements of Venice, Italy, and Polynesian island culture have found their way into the mix of creating this unique fantasy world.
The two young sisters are a contrast in their characters: Seika is softer and more deliberate, careful and concerned about the people of the kingdom; Ji-Lin is more fierce, physical and adventurous. But both show great courage in their different ways, and both gain in wisdom and maturity as they deal with the trials of their journey. The girls are joined by Kirro, a ship captain’s son, for most of their journey, which is initially a trial for all three of them, with Kirro’s different background and occasionally abrasive personality. Ji-Lin’s flying lion Alejan will charm readers with his delightful sense of humor and love of flying and adventure. Although he has a more youthful personality, he reminded me of my beloved Monster in Durst’s book The Girl Who Could Not Dream: slyly humorous, always loyal, and wise.
Journey Across the Hidden Islands blends in some insights and life lessons with the adventures. A waterhorse (not a hippopotamus-type of animal like I first envisioned, but a magical horse literally made out of water, with whirlpool eyes and sprays of foam for his mane and tail) informs the young travelers:
Stories are how we understand who we are and who we wish to be. Heroes. Traitors. Both at once. We define ourselves by the stories we tell. We shape ourselves by the stories we hear.
The children come to realize that life can be complicated, and that others’ motives and even personalities may not be as easily categorized ― good or bad, traitorous or heroic ― as they initially thought.
I recommend Journey Across the Hidden Islands for young readers in the 10-14 age range, as well as older readers who enjoy middle grade fantasy adventures with a coming-of-age element. It’s a delightful and enchanting journey.