The world is at war. Jalob hears about it on the radio, reads it on the newspapers, and sees it on the television. The people of Ansar have become refugees, homeless and unwanted. It brings back old memories for Jalob, who — as a child, fleeing the destruction of her island home with her father — was once just like those men, women, and children. And when the call goes out for medics to help care for the sick and the injured, Jalob puts aside her own uncertainties and volunteers to help.
What she finds on the mainland is … horror. Between the bombs, the constant propaganda, and the soldiers everywhere, Jalob has never felt less safe. It doesn’t help that the threat of rape and attack are constant, and not from the Ansar people she’s told to fear, but from the soldiers with guns and leers and a sadistic delight in their own power. Everywhere people are afraid, starving, and suffering, and Jalob can do nothing to help it. The only bright spot is the violinist whose music makes her heart beat like the ocean tides.
This book feels very much as if it takes place in the 1940s during World War II, for all that it takes place in an alternate world. The level of technology, the constant threats of war and violence, the mentions of the Mainland and the Great Island and the channel of water between them help to further flesh out the image in my head, but the book itself does very little to inspire its own flavor. This story is Eule Grey’s debut book and … it kind of shows. There are two stories being told in this book, unbalanced and so disparate that it’s hard to get a feel for either of them, and it’s rather sad because there is honest talent in the writing.
Jalob is large — over six feet — and has all the confidence of dandelion fluff. She’s self-deprecating, prone to keeping her shoulders hunched and her head down as she tries to take up less space and attract less notice. She’s used to benign called stupid, and she would rather avoid a confrontation until it’s forced upon her, and even then, if she could run away … she would. It’s not that she’s a coward, it’s just that violence will never be her first answer to any question.
Corail, the blonde haired Ansar violinist who catches Jalob’s eye, has been a refugee for almost all her life. Of all her family, only she and her mother remain, and it’s only because of her skill with music that she has been able to support the pair of them. She has stood naked in fields, playing for soldiers as her people toil in the earth. She has attended banquets where she’s not allowed to sit or eat, only play for their amusement. When Jalob asks to have the violinist for dinner, the mayor agrees to it, only after being assured Jalob and the hospital will pay for dinner.
And on the heels of all the violence and threats of violence, the repeated comments on rape and sexual slavery that even Jalob lives in constant fear of, I expected a painful story for Corail with her sharp tongue, breathtaking beauty, and bravado. Instead, she’s as untouched and virginal as any fairy tale princess. The story being told didn’t match up with the characters, and while it’s absolutely possible for two young lovers to live in their own bubble even during times of horror and war, I couldn’t help but feel that the story and the characters weren’t a perfect fit.
The base idea, of a medic dealing with refugees in a war-torn city, dealing with a lack of safety, food, and medical supplies — and falling in love with someone in the meantime — sounded so promising. And the writing for the first third was strong and absorbing, but then this fantastic mythology of Skarle and Ansar that hint at magic dolphins, prophecies, and gods watching over their people was shoehorned in and it all fell apart. The magical realism elements don’t enter organically, being told like fairy tales or child’s nursery rhymes, but have nothing to do with the story until the end … and the promises of a sequel.
Perhaps a second book would deal more with these elements, but as it stands, I have no interest in another book set in this world. Which is a shame because the wartime elements were so skillfully rendered, but the story that was told only used them as a fearful stick to beat the characters with. All in all, this is a story that, for me, falls right on the fence. The writing is good, the pace is good, but the characters and their story were unable to hold my interest.