The world: a large country, Tolounn, whose only art is war. A small country, The Floating Islands, which are technically part of the Tolounn empire, but have been nominally independent for 200 years. There’s magic — mages and dragons and flying men (called kajuraihi) — and the book goes for an ancient feel, with boats and horses, though it has steam-powered engines.
The characters: There’s Trei, half Tolunnese and half Islander, which makes him an outcast, at least in Tolounn. He relocates to the Islands after the deaths of his family, mostly because his father’s family won’t take him and his mother’s will. There he meets his cousin Araene, who is a brilliant chef and chafes against the really strict rules for girls: she wants to be able to follow her passions. (Who wouldn’t?) It turns out she has an affinity for magic, and the mage school pulls her in; however, since she’s a girl it means she needs to go out disguised as a boy. While she follows her passion, Trei follows his: to be a kajuraihi. Both of them will have roles to play in the conflict between the Islands and both will help determine not only their fates, but the fate of their country.
There are other minor characters, boys from the mage school and boys from the kajuraihi school, including Prince Ceirfei, a nephew to the Island king.
While it isn’t a bad story, or even poorly written (it’s pretty good on both accounts), I really wanted this book to be more than it was. I had a hard time keeping all the characters and places and terms (sigh Why is it when some fantasy writers create a whole new world, they feel a need to create a new language along with it?) straight, and eventually stopped trying for pronunciations. I also expected it to be more about Trei and Araene, and their determination to make their way against all odds. Instead, it turned out to be more about the conflict between the two countries, and everything else was swept aside. So, by the end — when there were still 60 more pages to the book — it felt really anticlimactic. I wanted everything to be stronger, more forceful, more gripping. It was nice — not terrific, but somewhat enjoyable — but that’s about it.
So, maybe this one was just a victim of my expectations. That does happen sometimes.