Title: The Reader
Author: Traci Chee
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Fantasy, Dystopia, Young Adult
Publication date: September 2016
Paperback: 442 pages
Once there was, and one day there will be. This is the beginning of every story.
Sefia lives her life on the run. After her father is viciously murdered, she flees to the forest with her aunt Nin, the only person left she can trust. They survive in the wilderness together, hunting and stealing what they need, forever looking over their shoulders for new threats. But when Nin is kidnapped, Sefia is suddenly on her own, with no way to know who’s taken Nin or where she is. Her only clue is a strange rectangular object that once belonged to her father left behind, something she comes to realize is a book.
Though reading is unheard of in Sefia’s world, she slowly learns, unearthing the book’s closely guarded secrets, which may be the key to Nin’s disappearance and discovering what really happened the day her father was killed. With no time to lose, and the unexpected help of swashbuckling pirates and an enigmatic stranger, Sefia sets out on a dangerous journey to rescue her aunt, using the book as her guide. In the end, she discovers what the book had been trying to tell her all along: Nothing is as it seems, and the end of her story is only the beginning.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Sea of Ink and Gold series
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
This is a book, and a book is a world, and words are the seeds in which meanings are curled. Pages of oceans and margins of land are civilizations you hold in the palm of your hand. But look at your world and your life seems to shrink to cities of paper and seas made of ink. Do you know who you are, or have you been misled? Are you the reader, or are you the read?
This is a book.
Sefia lives in a world without parents, without safety, and without books. There is magic in Sefia’s world–but it is fleeting and mysterious. Sefia is a sneak-thief–she has learned from the best in her aunt, Nin, and by necessity for survival. At a young age, Sefia has lost absolutely everything–her family has always been in hiding (for reasons unknown to young Sefia), but as a child, Sefia was trained in what to do in case the bad people ever found them in their hiding spot in the woods. When the inevitable, unthinkable happens, Sefia’s parents are brutally slain, leaving her alone with Nin on the run for their lives. The only thing that Sefia knows is that she must keep a special object safe, for it is the object that her parents died to protect–a rectangular, thick, worn item, with the ability to destroy kingdoms and build new worlds. It is a Book. This is a book.
When Nin is ripped away from Sefia–discovered by the people who killed her parents–Sefia is truly alone and desperate to save her last remaining family. She also ventures to look at the cursed object that she’s been carrying for years for the first time… learning, from memories of her mother and father, how to string the markings together to make sounds. Reading.
Along her journey to rescue Nin, Sefia meets Archer–a boy who is not so unlike Sefia, torn away from his own family and thrown into a life of slavery and fighting for profit. Together, the duo travel under the shadow of nightfall, slipping away from the assassins and guards who are hot in their pursuit, and embark on an adventure across kingdoms and foreign seas in the hope of finding peace. But destiny has big plans for both Sefia and Archer–she, who can read and use the magic of words to create alternate realities; he, who can fight with preternatural skill and who might lead armies.
This is a book.
The Reader is the debut novel from Traci Chee–and it is stunning in its intricacy, powerful characters, and multi-layered world. In other words: I loved this book.
On the character front, I love the relationship between Sefia and Archer, how their relationship evolves from mutual survival to trust and dependence. Sefia is a prickly character at first, but for good reason–she’s witnessed her family’s murder, and blames herself for her auntie’s abduction. As the story continues, we see that Sefia is a complex young woman, wracked with rage, grief, and purpose–she will not leave her family behind, be it Nin or Archer. She also, of course, is the eponymous Reader, loaded with power she is only beginning to tap into. (But more on that in a bit.) In contrast, Archer is another powerful character who is intricately nuanced; stolen and made a slave and living in deplorable conditions, Archer is forced to wear a collar, live in a box, and kill whenever he is let out. Archer’s struggle is to cling to his humanity–he is gifted at murder, but is a gentle soul and finds hope and purpose with Sefia. Though he is mute, he is one of the most expressive characters in this tale, and I love his story very much.
Beyond the characters, it is the magic of reading that makes The Reader truly memorable. I love the MAGIC of reading in this book; how reading itself, in a world without books or words, is an act that can control and alter reality. The singular book at the heart of this tale is one that contains everyone’s stories and is infinitely long, comprising the entirety of everyone’s lives and would-be lives. As Sefia learns the meaning of words and comes into her own power, she discovers the truth of her world and the reason her parents died–it is a powerful, rendering build-up.
And that’s nothing to say of the writing itself! Traci Chee’s words are beautiful and carefully chosen. I love the nested stories within stories in this volume, reminding me in many ways of two of my favorite matryoshka doll narratives: Catherynne M Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales and Alan Moore’s “Tales from the Black Freighter” in Watchmen. (Oh yes, there are pirates in this tale.) There are other tales contained within this novel’s pages, too–the story of an assassin and a different reader, in particular, are of interest.
I loved this book so very dearly. The Reader is one of the best YA fantasy novels I have read in a long while, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. Book 2, The Speaker is already out–and book 3 is due later this year. Get on it now, gentle readers.
Rating: 8 – Excellent