Traci Chee's The Reader: Book One of Sea of Ink and Gold was one of those novels that I actively, though unsuccessfully, tried to avoid, only because it was obviously only the first of what is going to be a series. My fear with the first book of any series is always the same: what if it is terrible, but now I feel obligated to continue until the series is done? Or, something that can turn out almost as bad, what if the series will not be limited to only three, four, or five books? What if this is a series that just keeps going well beyond the point of being interesting? Well, either way, here we are, and I am simply hoping for the best.
The Situation: Sefia lives life on the run, and cannot imagine things any other way, especially after the death of her father. She and her Aunt Nin hide out from authorities, and manage to survive by picking locks, petty thievery, and basically being incredibly aware of their surroundings. Nin has taught Sefia well, and has managed to keep her safe so far. But after going out on her own, Sefia returns to their hideout and sees that Nin has been found, and is being questioned. Although she manages to keep herself hidden, Nin is taken, leaving Sefia on her own for the first time. She knows what they are after. She keeps the item they seek close to her at all times. Sefia has in her possession a book, in a world where people no longer read, and words and stories have incredible power. It is what they were looking for when they killed her father, and now they will come for her.
The Problem: Now on her own, Sefia is convinced that is how she should remain, as everyone close to her seems to get hurt, or killed. But when she comes upon a strange boy who is being held captive, she knows she must save him, although doing so seems to only have earned her a partner she did not want. Now the two of them travel the land of Oxscini together, looking for the men who took Nin, who seem to also be the same people who hurt and captured this strange boy, whom Sefia has decided to call Archer. On their way they will encounter deceptive bartenders, murderous henchmen, and even helpful pirates, all while trying to discover the secrets and stories of the book Sefia has promised herself she will protect. But while they chase the people she wants revenge against, there are still others who are chasing her.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel full of spells, magic, adventure, fighting, and storytelling. If there is one takeaway from this novel it is that words are powerful, and storytelling has incredible value, more than people realize. While Sefia may be the main character, her story, along with Archer's, is only one part of what is going on in these pages. Possibly even more interesting than the adventure that they are on is the story of Captain Reed, his crew, and his ship, the Current of Faith. At some point, Captain Reed does end up crossing paths with our heroine, but we also learn more about him from the mysterious book that Sefia is carrying, as his past adventures are written inside. But even beyond Sefia and Captain Reed, there is Tanin, whose full powers and purpose are never quite explained, and also Lon, a young apprentice studying in a strange library where he learns spells and how to control his Vision. All of this takes place in the fictional world of Kelanna. At the beginning of the book, a full map of Kelanna is presented, and becomes increasingly useful as the names of its countries and cities are mentioned. Chee has built an entire world, only a small section of which is explored in this first book. Also, the book Sefia is carrying is not the only one with secrets. The physical book of The Reader has hidden messages in it as well, and they are fairly easy to find if you look for them.
My Verdict: At first, the amount of characters that are presented in the story is overwhelming. I don't know if they are thrown out too fast, or if there are too many of them, but things got confusing quickly. It also did not help that many of them are a part of Captain Reed's crew on the Current of Faith, and each have their own function and personality. And there were times when the writing felt choppy, or the dialogue felt forced and unbelievable, or the relationships didn't seem...right. But I will say this, for any shortcomings there were in the writing - whether real or only imagined by me - the world that Chee has built for the purpose of this book is phenomenal and imaginative and everything you could want for a young adult fantasy novel. And despite my initial hesitations, I look forward to the second book.
Favorite Moment: When Captain Reed expertly deals with an assassin who had made it onto his ship.
Favorite Character: I wish I could like Sefia more, but she made too many obviously terrible choices, so instead I pick Captain Reed. He is a true pirate, with an intense desire for any adventure that will potentially turn into a great story. Plus, he is a picture of courage, and will do what he has to in order to protect his crew.
Recommended Reading: I think the Legend series by Marie Lu would be a good companion to this book. But instead of building a completely new world, Lu takes the world as we know it and reimagined it to where the U.S. has been split into two warring parts; Africa is a thriving continent for the first time in forever, and Antarctica is a highly sought out military ally.