“‘Once, there were two princesses, Sisters. One trained to be a warrior, at the top of a mountain. She was never allowed to go home. The other trained to be the perfect princess. She was never allowed out of the palace. Until one day, when their father said they were ready . . .’
‘They weren’t ready,’ Ji-Lin admitted.
‘They weren’t,’ Seika agreed. ‘But they had to go, because they were needed. And their journey was more dangerous than anyone thought it would be.'”
In this middle grade fantasy with a hint of Japanese influence (no actual mention of Japan), the twin princesses Seika and Ji-Lin, heir and guardian respectively of the island kingdom of Himitsu, travel together on the ritual Emperor’s Journey to the volcanic mountain where Seika will meet with the dragon who keeps the hidden kingdom hidden with a protective magical barrier. Ji-Lin’s task, along with her winged lion Alejan, is to protect her sister, Seika, and help her to complete the journey. They must reach the the Shrine of the Dragon by Himit’s Day. The safety of the islands and their people depends on two twelve year old princesses and a strong, but immature, winged lion.
What a fantastic book—humorous, thrilling, and at times, even thoughtful. It’s a celebration of sisterhood as the twins test themselves and learn to depend on each other’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. There are koji, monsters of various sorts, to fight or avoid, and there are choices to be made, both moral and strategic. Seika, who depends on her mastery of the traditions and rituals of her people’s history to keep the world stable and safe, must learn that perfection in word and deed isn’t always possible and isn’t always what’s needed. Ji-Lin, who has been trained to fight and to protect, must learn that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Both girls, and indeed their father, the Emperor, and all of the people of the Hidden Islands of Himitsu, must grow to accept change and to make new traditions.
It’s not as complicated or indeed as literary as Grace Lin’s award winning novels Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Starry River of the Sky, and When the Sea Turned to Silver, books to which Journey Across the Hidden Islands is sure to be compared. The books do share a common theme: that stories are important and powerful, especially the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell about ourselves. But as it turns out I’m more a fan of straightforward with a little bit of funny thrown in, so if you want a fantasy for ages nine to twelve with a hint of an Asian flavor, a solid plot, and good themes, I’d recommend this one.