THE VOYAGE TO THE MAGICAL NORTH by Claire Fayers
Published by Henry Holt & Co., July 2016
Suggested age range: 8 – 12 years
Twelve-year-old Brine Seaborne is a girl with a past–if only she could remember what it is. Found alone in a rowboat as a child, clutching a shard of the rare starshell needed for spell-casting, she’s spent the past years keeping house for an irritable magician and his obnoxious apprentice, Peter.
When Brine and Peter get themselves into a load of trouble and flee, they blunder into the path of the legendary pirate ship the Onion. Before you can say “pieces of eight,” they’re up to their necks in the pirates’ quest to find Magical North, a place so shrouded in secrets and myth that most people don’t even think it exists. If Brine is lucky, she’ll find her place in the world. And if she’s unlucky, everyone on the ship will be eaten by sea monsters. It could really go either way.
-courtesy of Amazon
IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:
Themes include history (What counts as history? Who writes it?) and stories. Also there are pirates and magic.
Eva & Meagan. Read more of our opinions about middle-grade books here!
So what did we think?
Eva: There was so much to enjoy in this imaginative book. I love the way magic is described in Brine and Peter’s world:
“The magician takes a quantity of magic, forms it into the correct spellshape, and releases it. The process appears mysterious because most people cannot see magic. All they see is the magician’s hand moving and the flash of light as the spell is released.”
I was tickled by the notion of a “magical north,” which is like the magnetic north pole except with magic. I also liked that the famous and heroic pirate, Cassie O’Pia, is a woman, and that there is an island library where no men are allowed.
Meagan: Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting detail in the imaginary world the author created. The role of fish and birds as magical minions was funny. I also liked that the librarians and the pirates both functioned as essentially “good guys” but neither were perfect. They all did some wrong things.
Eva: Fayers earns an A+ for imagination and world-building. I’m not so sure about the point of view she chose to use, however. I suppose we can call it omniscient narration, but it wasn’t really. It was more like close third — hopping from one character’s POV to another’s, chapter by chapter, as it served the story. In some ways this is good — readers can choose to identify with Brine or Peter or even the pirates. But because of the POV-switching, I had some trouble getting fully invested in any of the characters, and I didn’t always understand their motivations.
Meagan: I had a hard time with character motivation as well, especially with the changeable relationship between Brine and Peter. They were friends one minute and rivals the next. That could be okay, but it often didn’t feel properly motivated. In a given moment, I couldn’t predict whether they were going to work together or against each other until the author told me. It’s like their motivations didn’t really grow out of the story, but rather were there to facilitate what needed to happen next in the story.
Eva: I agree. Character motivation can be really hard to show in writing. One way to do it is through interiority — the character’s internal thoughts. We definitely got some interiority in this book, from Peter especially, but maybe getting more interiority from him about his feelings towards Brine would have helped us understand their relationship.
Meagan: My favorite parts of the story were the scenes between Peter and the evil magician Marfak West. Without giving too much away, it felt totally believable that Peter would be drawn to learning from Marfak West even though he knew he shouldn’t trust him. This made for great tension because I never quite knew what Marfak West’s plan was, and I didn’t know how far Peter would go in aligning himself with Marfak West.
Eva: Those scenes were interesting, and definitely a large source of tension in the book. My favorite parts were the little book snippets at the beginning of each chapter that gave us insight into Brine and Peter’s world.
I also really liked the beginning two chapters — they totally sucked me in. But, they were also problematic in light of the rest of the story. I remember hearing an agent talk about the “promise of the first page.” Essentially, if you introduce a mystery or question on page one, it should be answered by the end of the book.
On page one of The Voyage to the Magical North, we get this:
“[Brine] had one clear memory of waking up in a rowing boat three years ago, surrounded by people, and that was all. They’d asked her her name, and she couldn’t remember — she couldn’t remember anything. So they named her Brine because she was crusted head to foot in sea salt.”
Immediately, I was intrigued, and I assumed that the book was going to be about figuring out the mystery of who Brine is and where she came from. But instead, Brine and Peter take up with some pirates and journey to the magical north. It’s a grand adventure, but I was confused because it wasn’t the journey I was promised.
Towards the end there are some hints that Marfak West knows who Brine really is, and it seems like perhaps the sequel is going to be about Brine’s journey to find out about her past, but in some ways I felt tricked — I got invested in a mystery that was barely addressed.
Will we learn about Brine’s mysterious origins in the sequel?
Meagan: You make a great point about the “promise” of the story. It reminds me of the concept of Chekhov’s gun. If you place a noticeable detail (such as a gun) in a scene, the detail must be essential to the story (someone has to fire the gun later), otherwise leave it out. I think the same goes for statements like “she couldn’t remember her name.” The reader is going to implicitly trust you that you intend to either reveal her name, or at least reveal why she can’t remember it. All they must do is keep reading. In fact, hooking readers with interesting mysteries is one of the major ways to get them to keep reading, BUT you gotta keep your promises in order for your reader not to feel cheated.
Eva: That being said, I’m sure there are a lot of kids out there who will enjoy this book and not care a hoot about “the promise of the premise.” As I’ve mentioned on Middle Grade Bookshelf before, sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile my adult sensibilities with what I liked as a kid. This is a very imaginative story with lots of adventure — sea monsters, pirates, magic. Fun stuff that kids tend to like.
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:
Meagan: I haven’t read the Pippi Longstocking books since I was a kid, but are those kind of similar, aren’t they? Light, humorous, episodic adventure.
Eva: I haven’t read them since I was a kid either, but I can definitely see that as a parallel. They include some sea-faring adventures as far as I remember. And I LOVED the Pippi Longstocking books as a kid. I’m beginning to think that kids are much more accepting of episodic stories than adults are. Maybe adults want a plot that culminates whereas kids want a story that just keeps on going? Something to ponder…
THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:
- Imaginative world-building
- Inverting tropes (i.e. female pirate, a boy who has to disguise himself as a girl)
- Building tension
Eva: For me The Voyage to the Magical North didn’t fulfill the promise of the first page, and ultimately I was not as invested in the characters as I would have liked. On the other hand, the world-building was incredibly fun and imaginative. Kids who love adventure will certainly love this book.
Meagan: There can be a lot of successful anchors for story. A story can be primarily character-centered, plot-centered, theme-centered, setting-centered, etc. A story needs all of those things, but not every story is going to be equally strong in every area. It seemed to me that this story was anchored in its setting. The unique world and its fun details seemed like the freshest and most inspiring aspects of the novel. They were enough to keep me reading, but not enough to push this book onto my personal favorites list.