Fifteen-year-old Sefia has been on the run for six years, ever since she discovered the brutal murder of her father and fled their home with "Aunt" Nin, a squat, tough-faced master criminal. After her mother's death years earlier, Sefia had known only her father and Nin. Hiding in the shadows from the faceless enemy who killed her father, Sefia has learned to hunt, steal and survive in the island kingdoms of Kelanna under Nin's tutelage.
When Nin is kidnapped, Sefia is left searching for answers, starting with "the mysterious angular object" she discovered in her parents' house. It is a book, but she doesn't know it because the written word is unknown in Kelanna, lending historical importance and value to storytelling and memory. Sefia vaguely recalls some of the symbols on the pages of the heavy, leather-wrapped object from her childhood blocks and her mother's songs, and finally makes the connection that it's a book full of words that have sounds and meanings: "Were they messages? Magic? Some ancient wisdom entrusted only to her parents?"
As she learns to read the book, Sefia's mission becomes clear: "Learn what the book was for. Rescue Nin. And if she could, make them pay." Sefia is certain that the people who took Nin must be responsible for her father's death as well, and must be stopped. In her attempt to track Nin's captors, Sefia comes across a menacing band of impressors, thieves who steal boys. After noticing a crate--with air holes--in their midst, branded with the same symbol as the book, brave Sefia rescues a boy named Archer from their clutches. Archer is a fierce, silent, dodgy companion who may be able to help her on her journey. As Sefia and Archer track the impressors across the kingdom, searching for Nin and hoping for vengeance, her magnetic connection with what her mother called the "hidden energy to the world, some light simmering just beneath the surface," continues to grow and manifest itself in ever-changing ways.
The Reader, the ambitious first in the Sea of Ink and Gold series by Traci Chee, is wide in scope, a rich mine of overlapping storylines and timelines. Sefia is a likable heroine, smart and headstrong yet hesitant enough to be believable. Chee's colorful side characters, from an Apprentice Librarian to the shadowy group that's after Sefia, and particularly the tough but lovable Captain Reed, steal the show.
Though the timelines can be a bit unclear, the world-building Chee achieves is remarkable. The book's violence, while intermittent and always for a purpose, can be quite gruesome. Setting the stage for battles to come, and teasing the prospect of a prophesied Red War between the kingdoms, The Reader weaves golden threads through land, sea and the fabric of time in a complex web of powerful magic and dangerous words. --Kyla Paterno, former children's & YA book buyer
Shelf Talker: In this tantalizing YA series debut, a teenaged girl from an illiterate world discovers the power of the written word in a mysterious book.