An action-packed adventure set in a mystical Sri Lankan setting that you can practically taste, smell and touch.
Chaya is the Sri Lankan child version of Robin Hood. She’s a thief but only steals to help the people of her village: to pay to mend Chathura’s roof; for Sumana’s son’s books; for David’s vegetable cart; or to prevent Marikkar’s children starving. However, she goes too far when she breaks into the palace to steal the Queen’s jewels. The King sends his guards to ransack the surrounding villages and they will stop at nothing to find the thief. The jewels are tracked down to Chaya’s best friend – 13 year-old Neel – who is sentenced to death for her crime. Chaya mounts a daring rescue (that includes stealing the King’s elephant) with a little help from local merchant’s daughter, Nour. Pursued by the King’s guards, the three children flee into the jungle and so begins another, bigger, adventure.
This is a book that is packed with action. This begins with the very first line when Chaya is confronted by a bronze Spear pointing at her neck and continues with a breakneck chase through the palace celebrations (darting between frying sweetmeats, dancers and musicians to the clash of cymbals and ducking beneath the mighty bulk of the King’s elephant). Beyond this first chapter, we’re treated to a thrilling prison breakout complete with fireworks and several dramatic jungle scenes that include Chaya and Nour escaping by leaping into an eighty-foot waterfall. All of which comes before an action-packed climax (that I’m not going to say anything about as I don’t want to risk a spoiler.)
Fortunately, all this exciting action is not at the expense of either the carefully constructed plot or the characterisation. All three main characters – Chaya, Neel and Nour – are well realised. As the viewpoint character, Chaya is easier to understand but, given her headstrong and impulsive personality, it’s probably just as well we have access to her thoughts. I, however, preferred her friend Neel, instantly warming to his steadying sense of responsibility and his calm approach in a crisis. Indeed, it’s almost impossible not to love someone who’s willing to accept a death sentence in place of his friend. Someone who, at the time he is facing death, is more worried about how his family will manage without his wages. Our final character – Nour – takes a little longer to understand. However, I liked the way we learn to understand and value her along with Chaya: it feels like we, the reader, are slowly making friends with Nour as her friendship with Chaya blossoms.
While the action, plot and characters combine to make this a cracking read, it is the mystical Sri Lankan setting that really leaps from the page. Debut author, Nizrana Farook, expertly guides us through this new country. Every scene – whether this is the palace celebrations, Neel’s carpentry workshop, or the depth of the jungle – is perfectly realised with descriptions so skilful that I simply didn’t notice them. Instead, I spent the entire book focused on the plot and the action, almost subliminally assimilating the smells, sights and sounds of each of the different settings.
If you enjoyed the mystery of Sri Lankan setting, you might want to try Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan which is set in India. Alternatively, for a magical middle-grade story in a more traditional fantasy setting why not try to The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike or Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory.
Publication date: January 2019
Publisher: Nosy Crow