Fantasy has, post-Harry Potter, become somewhat of the stock-in-trade of the middle grade section. Series reign supreme, and there are magical elements in even the most seemingly ordinary stories. In fact, it sometimes feels as though realistic contemporary fiction is in the minority. And sometimes it's hard for me to distinguish one fantasy series from another: orphans with special powers being pursued by ubiquitous baddies. If you've read one of those, well, you just might have read them all.
And here's where Jasmine Richards' novel The Book of Wonders breaks from the pack. Because from the very first sentences ("I heard the noise first. A howl, which sounded like all the djinnis in the world were crying out as one") you know you're in for something very different.
In Wonders, Richards takes the Sinbad legends and other elements of Middle Eastern tales and spins them around, adding in characters and sensibilities that harken to another world but still are very much relatable to modern readers. Our heroine Zardi is fascinated by lore of days gone by - days when magic existed in the kingdom of Arribitha, before Sultan Shahryar came to power and banned any mention of mystical occurrences. Zardi contents herself with peering through the window of fantasy here and there, until her sister Zubeyda is captured by the sultan and made to serve as his praisemaker, a position whose only end is death. Zardi must save her sister, and she and best friend Rhidan set off to do the impossible: bring magic back into Arribitha and with it defeat Shahryar once and for all.
Zardi and Rhidan's fates become inextricably intertwined with that of Captain Sinbad, a figure that will be familiar to many but whose role in this novel is unlike anything else I've ever read. Djinnis, medicine women, mysterious amulets and powers beyond compare -- Richards' originality comes through on every page, as she brings the legends of Sinbad to life in a whole new way. Sinbad isn't what he seems, as Zardi and Rhidan soon discover, a lesson that is to serve them in good stead as they journey toward magic and salvation for Zubeyda.
The plotting in Wonders is tight, the pace brisk and the characters as complex as they are believable. Richards makes us care about Zardi, Rhidan and the rest in a way that some fantasy writers, preoccupied perhaps with their magical realms, never quite do. But readers can identify with Rhidan's struggle for identity, with Zardi's drive to save her family, and that connection is what makes this novel truly shine.
And the setup for a sequel? You'd better believe I'll be back for more.
The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards, published by HarperCollins
Sample quote: "She surveyed the columns ahead, each one sitting a bit higher than the last, huge rocky steps rising upward. All we need to do is reach the middle. She looked down at the river and the spiky clusters of rocks that stabbed out of the water within the shadow of the arch. And not fall off. . . "
Bonus: Interview with Jasmine Richards from Doret at The Happy Nappy Bookseller blog