After a brutal murder orphaned Sefia as a child, she has lived her life running from authorities and anyone who may get too close. But when her mentor is taken, Sefia is left to fend for herself using the only clue she has, a rectangular object full of paper. In Sefia’s world, reading and writing don’t exist, and Sefia does not know how important the book in her hands is to the people who killed her parents. Along her way, Sefia saves and befriends the loyal Archer, a traumatized young gladiator whose past has rendered him mute, but not unable to communicate. These two friends face magical and violent foes, battles on the high seas, and slavery- all while Sefia teaches herself to read. Read my First Look here.
This is a book about stories, and The Reader is really, really clever about it. Sefia does not know the story that lead her parents to build a secluded home with a secret escape, just to hide the book. Archer cannot tell the story of how he came to be a lethal fighter unable to speak, hunted by a strange cult. As the characters explore their pasts and how they might survive the future, we find that these two unknown stories are actually woven tightly together. There is literal magic in this story, tied closely to the ‘magic of stories’ in a way that is just pretty darn cute.
Chee does an amazing job of rendering a world that does not have written history, where all stories and memories must be passed down verbally. The world of The Reader is full and complex, as are the characters of Sefia and Archer. Their traumas are well-realized and respected by Chee, not used for cheap thrills or to put them into ridiculous scenarios. Even the tropey characters- the assassins and pirates and even the secret society- end up feeling unique, human, and special to this world. The friendship that blossoms between Sefia and Archer is surprisingly well done, as is the comradery of the pirates featured in the book Sefia reads.
This book doesn’t hold the reader’s hand through some narrative structure tricks, and it may be a bit complex for younger YA readers. There are long stretches where the action takes a backseat to introspection and relationship building, which may come off as ‘slow’ to some readers who are looking for higher energy storytelling. That’s all I can come up with as potential criticisms. I thought this was really just wonderful all around.
I hate catching excellent debuts of trilogies; waiting years for the end of this one will be rough. I highly recommend this book to anyone* looking for something fresh in the YA fantasy genre, especially if you’re looking for gorgeous style and diverse characters (Sefia is described as asian, Archer has a disability, and there are women and people of color in power positions throughout the story).
Scent Notes: gun oil, freshly carved bark, and a well tended library
*Content Warning: There is rare but very intense violence in these books. Torture, brutalization, slavery, and murder are described in detail, and the two main characters suffer extensive trauma from what they’ve endured.