The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards, was published in 2012 by Harper.
Thirteen-year-old Zardi loves to hear stories about fantastical beings long banned from the kingdom of Arribitha. But anyone who is caught whispering of their powers will feel the rage of the sultan—a terrifying tyrant who, even with his eyes closed, can see all. When her own beloved sister is captured by the evil ruler, Zardi knows that she must risk everything to rescue her. Along with Rhidan, who is her best friend, and an unlikely crew of sailors led by the infamous Captain Sinbad, Zardi ventures forth into strange and wondrous territory with a seemingly impossible mission: to bring magic back to Arribitha and defeat the sultan once and for all.
As with all the books that I feel have potential, I tried to like The Book of Wonders—but in the end, I just couldn’t. It’s clearly a debut novel and the sort where the world dazzles and hides the fact that the rest of the novel is weak and messy. And the world in this book is dazzling—I like the Arabian Nights feel and the inclusion of Sinbad, Aladdin, and even Scheherazade. I like the nudge it makes at those legendary and mythological characters while forging ahead and creating new things out of them. And I liked, initially, the creepy and oppressive presence of the Sultan and the subversion of the “evil vizier manipulating the sultan” trope.
But the dazzling, pretty world hides many not so pretty things, like the groan-inducing moments where Richards is so obviously trying to be clever but failing (like the “Open, Sesame” bit. I’ve never rolled my eyes so hard in my life) and the moments where Zardi solves everything, beats everything, and is The Best at everything she does. It annoyed me to no end that a group of adults were noticeably more cowardly and incompetent than a thirteen-year-old girl and that even Rhidan got pushed aside to make room for Zardi Being Amazing At Everything.
Also, the Sultan was creepy at the beginning but then his character just falls flat at the end, and Zardi spends so much time on Desolation Island that I forgot completely that she was trying to rescue her sister from the Sultan (which she did in about two pages, because Zardi is The Best).
It’s a pretty novel, but so many things could have been better and the good things about it aren’t good enough to redeem it.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Zardi gasped as an image of a barren strip of land edged with high cliffs of black onyx appeared on the silver tabletop. An imposing fortress made out of the same shiny black stone rose out of the center of the isle and slashed the stormy sky like a blade. The fortress was all angles and sharp edges and had no apparent entrance. Surrounded by dark and torrid water the color of steel, this strange island was awesomely cold and dismal.
“What is this place?” Rhidan questioned.
“Your home,” Sula replied. “The Black Isle.”
Rhidan’s violet eyes seemed to fill his whole face. “B-but…Sinbad said that this place didn’t exist,” he stammered.
“My son thinks of my stories as fables and fairy tales.” Sula leaned in close, her face soft with kindness. “His instincts were right when he identified you as an Ilian. He just didn’t know it.”