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Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst
Cover Artist: Brandon Dorman
Review by Paul Haggerty
Clarion Books Trade Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780544706798
Date: 04 April 2017 / Show Official Info /

Journey Across the Hidden Isles is a philosophy lesson hidden within a delightful Middle-Grade novel. Durst's two protagonists, twelve-year-old princesses, Seika and Ji-Lin have lived their entire lives secure in the certainty passed to them by their elders and teachers. Ji-Lin will be a mighty warrior, rider of the winged lion, Alejan, protector of her sister, Seika, heir to the throne of Himitsu. These are just facts to them, as certain as the sun will rise. They've lived their lives steeped in ritual and expectation of their history, proper behavior, and destiny. Which makes things baffling and slightly terrifying when everything they've learned suddenly comes under question.

The islands of Himitsu are shielded from the outside world by an impenetrable barrier generated by a dragon. Two hundred years before, when their people fled from the tyranny and oppression of the Empire of Zemlya, Himitsu, the man who would become the first Emperor and lent his name to the new realm, made a deal with the dragon to protect his people, and in return the people of Himitsu would protect the dragon. Every generation the heir to the throne makes the Emperor's Journey to renew the bargain. Five days travel from the Imperial capital to the dragon's island, each night spent at one of the villages, all with the accompanying pomp and circumstance. It's as clock-work as any of the other rituals they've performed their whole lives. Not a step would ever be allowed out of place.

But right from the start, nothing seems to go according to tradition. First, their Journey is several years earlier than expected. Traveling is much longer and more tiring than any of the tales ever mentioned. And the villages haven't been informed of their arrival. Then there are the monsters, known as Koji, which are terrorizing the islands. They're not supposed to be able to get past the barrier, and yet here they are. The tipping point comes when the princesses come across a Zemlyan ship, crewed by people that are not the evil oppressors they're supposed to be. People whose history remembers the exodus quite differently, and certainly not nearly as flattering to the refugees.

By the time the girls arrive on the dragon's island, they're ready to question everything they've ever learned. Their heroes suddenly aren't quite so heroic. And if nothing they've been told is quite what it appears to be, who are they to trust? What are they to trust? They have a mission to complete, but is it a mission that should be completed? Pretty heavy stuff for two twelve-year-olds to deal with. But they are princesses of the realm. Whether everything they've been taught is true or false, there is one thing they will never abandon. They have the duty to do right by their people. No matter what anyone else thinks.

One of the underlying themes of Journey Across the Hidden Isles is the old adage that history is written by the victors. No matter how much we might wish it otherwise, people will always tell tales that paint them in the best light. And as the tales get passed down the generations, that light gets rosier and rosier. The other theme boils down to the question of what is the purpose of power. The Emperor of Himitsu wields vast powers, but for what purpose? Seika has been brought up with every expectation that she will become Empress. But for her, the purpose of that position is to protect and guard the people. Even if that means turning on tradition, and her elders. Again, pretty heavy stuff hidden in a fun romp of two teenagers and their flying lion.

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