Sefia lost her parents years ago, and since then, she’s been on the run. Together with her aunt Nin, the only family she has left, she lives in the wilderness, hunting and stealing to stay alive. That is, until Aunt Nin gets taken from her, too, when the people who killed Sefia’s father finally catch up with them. Now, Sefia is all alone, accompanied only by the mysterious item that has gotten her entire family killed: The Book. Determined to make things right, she pursues the kidnappers of Aunt Nin in an attempt to save her. Along the way, she meets new allies and gets to know the dangerous item she’s carrying with her. She begins to read the Book. She becomes a reader.
The Reader, Traci Chee‘s debut YA fantasy novel, is an ode to reading. And if, at times, it feels similar to Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series, The Reader definitely stands on its own. Especially interesting about this book are the design choices — the symbols appearing before each chapter, the blacked-out sentences, the inky thumbprints appearing on the pages here and there. As you turn the pages of The Reader, you slowly become aware of just how meta this book is, and noticing all the little details the author incorporated into the layout and design is exciting.
The novel is driven almost completely by its narrative and worldbuilding. The premise starts out intriguing enough: we have a world in which reading is a lost art, and written word seems to have magical capabilities. Sefia is one of the few characters who knows how to read and write, but her reading isn’t limited to the Book alone — she can also read people. The magic system is unique, if a little under-explained at times, and the metafiction elements blend with the narrative extremely well. The characters themselves tend to get a little lost in the setting, and it seems like none of them get quite enough time in the spotlight to have significant character development. It’s a little difficult to care, though — if the characters are a little bland, the vivid and immersive world more than makes up for it. It’s great to see fantasy novels do something slightly different every now and then, and that is certainly what Chee’s maritime setting achieves. Instead of the age-old forests and castles and wizards, we get jungles and ships and pirates. The technology level is also ambiguous, but we know things like electricity (though it remains almost entirely absent) exist. Maybe that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m always up for a little variation, and I found these elements delightful.
The Reader starts out strong, with great characterization and pacing. Soon, however, we are introduced to the worst problem of this book: the point of view is split between a lot of different characters. Many of these people have little to nothing to do with each other until much later in the book, and they get introduced to the reader in rapid succession. After the first three or four different point of views, it becomes difficult to remain invested in the new characters that are still marching on stage — the flow of the story gets splintered. It slows the plot down by quite a bit, too. The different characters do all get tied together to the same story by the end of the book, but I can’t help but to wonder if there was a better way to do this. Especially since we know The Reader is a first in a series, I feel like many of these characters could easily have had their moment in the spotlight postponed to a later book in the series, when we’ve formed a better connection to Sefia and the core cast. Particularly confusing is the single chapter written from the point of view of a character that seemingly appears nowhere else in the book, and only has that one chapter to themselves. Who is this bumbling navy officer? Why are we meant to care about him? Why is he there? Perhaps we’ll find out in a later book, but for now, this decision remains baffling.
The second problem I had with this book is more symptomatic of the current state of fantasy literature — especially YA fantasy — than shortcomings in writing. Namely, this book essentially has no ending. Of course, I knew from the get-go that The Reader was the first book of the Sea of Ink and Gold (however many parts it’ll turn out to be), so I didn’t, by any means, expect everything to be resolved. But I did admittedly expect some kind of resolution, some kind of complete story arc or partial closure. The Reader had none whatsoever. I was dumbfounded to turn the page and find out that this was all we were going to get. I know this sometimes happens in a series, that it’s not always possible to have each book be a self-contained, full story arc, but… This is the first in a series, and it really seems like there could have been more of an ending, or at least a cliffhanger if the reader was to be left hanging. The Reader had neither, and I found that sorely disappointing.
That said, by no means was this a bad book. Far from it! Overall, The Reader is a great read, unique enough to make up for the slow pace, engaging enough to make up for the frustratingly large cast of point-of-view characters. The writing especially is excellent, and the design choices are both interesting and immersive. The problems I had with the book were not nearly enough to sap away its potential — and, believe me, there is a lot of potential here. I will definitely be picking up the next book in the series, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Traci Chee comes up with in her hopefully long and productive career!