Politics. War. A hidden Mage school. Dragons. Did I enjoy The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier? How could I not?
When Trei loses his family in a tragic disaster, he must search out distant relatives in a new land. The Floating Islands are unlike anything Trei has ever seen: stunning, majestic, and graced with kajurai, men who soar the skies with wings. Trei is instantly sky-mad, and desperate to be a kajurai himself. The only one who fully understands his passion is Araene, his newfound cousin. Prickly, sarcastic, and gifted, Araene has a secret of her own . . . a dream a girl cannot attain. Trei and Araene quickly become conspirators as they pursue their individual paths. But neither suspects that their lives will be deeply entwined, and that the fate of the Floating Islands will lie in their hands.
The Floating Islands is the story of both Trei and Araene, told in third person limited, going back and forth between them with each chapter. Both Trei and Araene are strong protagonists and each is in a position that raises interesting questions and problems. Through Trei we are told the story of a boy of mixed nationality, not completely one or the other, never truly belonging. His story is about loyalty and the struggle of continuously feeling the need to prove oneself. Through Araene we get a story of a girl who feels trapped in others' expectations for her. She wants a life that society deems is not proper for her so she feels she must choose between suppressing her passions and conforming in misery or in being something she isn't to achieve the life she wants. In addition there are strong themes of friendship, honor, sacrifice and family. The decisions Trei and Araene have to make are not about absolute right or wrong but nuanced and difficult to judge. I liked the way there was no real good/evil battle, but a very real depiction of the politics and considerations of national autonomy and empirical expansion. All of this is set against a world that is fully realized. It has a Greco-Roman feel to it but there is also quite a bit that is reminiscent of Asian culture.
My only quibble is that often the inner conflicts of both main characters lasted a bit long. Do I or don't I? Is it right or wrong? Should I do this or would that work better? I was frustrated at times to the point of wanting to yell, "Make a decision already!" I wouldn't have minded so much if at times these inner conflicts weren't a tad didactic. This wasn't enough to truly depreciate my overall enjoyment though.
This is isn't a book for everyone. You have to be a patient reader and one who doesn't mind characters veering into technical discussions on how things work in their world. This would be a good book for any one who has enjoyed Sarah Prineas's Magic Thief books or Hilari Bell's Farsala Trilogy.