Review by Jennifer Irvine
Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing, February 2019
304 pages, hardcover, $22.00 CAD, 978-1-68119-959-7
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-6
Middle Grade, Fantasy, Mystery
That night the rain bucketed down with a vengeance. It lasted for several days, lashing from dawn until dusk and smearing the island into an endless gray blur. The monsoon sealed them all inside the little cottage together, Fionn’s grandfather sinking into a renewed frenzy of candle-making while ravens gathered on their roof, one by one, until they could hear them shrieking down the chimney.
Fionn Boyle has lot to deal with in his 11-year-old life in Dublin. His dad died before he was born, his mother suffers from depression, and his 13-year-old sister Tara has turned into a self-absorbed, heartless teenager. When he and Tara are shipped off to the island of Arranmore for the summer, things only get worse.
From the moment Fionn and Tara step off of the ferry, the island is a constant whirl of weather and surrounded by titanic waves. Fionn’s cheeks sting and his lungs burn as they sail to their ancestral home off the shores of Ireland. The siblings have arrived just in time for a new storm keeper to be chosen, a role selected once every generation to keep the island’s magic safe.
The current storm keeper is Fionn’s grandfather, Malachy Boyle, and only he has access to the past lives of the island residents through the candles he makes to capture the island’s storms. However, he is getting old and weary so Malachy begins to show his grandson his origins: his own journey to becoming a storm keeper, what actually happened to Fionn’s father, and what will be required of the next storm keeper.
There are several other surly teenagers to contend with, particularly bully Bartley Beasley, Tara’s island boyfriend, and Fionn’s competition for storm keeper. Bartley’s sister Shelby is charitable towards Fionn and a potential ally. She has a quick wit, practical nature, and a mouth full of braces. However, she has no trouble abandoning him to roam the island with Bartley and Tara in search of the sea cave that holds a single wish only one person can claim.
The most endearing relationship is Fionn’s growing connection with his grandfather. He is kind and laughs when Fionn first meets him and he imagines his grandfather surrounded by a tornado, “the winds of it playing his heart like a fiddle.” Malachy can also be ferocious, with “wild-eyes and unkempt,” when he is furious at Fionn for extinguishing the candle on the cottage fireplace mantel that holds Malachy’s own life force.
Tara’s character is portrayed as constantly conniving against her younger brother. She doesn’t help Fionn assimilate into the island culture even though she stayed there the summer before. She refuses to impart the many rules about how to navigate the island’s magic, such as how powerful the candles their grandfather makes really are, clues to where the sea cave is, or that Bartley is from a formidable island family that will stop at nothing to make their son the next storm keeper. In the end, Tara swings from being a cruel but feisty older sister to a useless puddle of hysterics and fear, dependent on people to save her from the evil that has been unleashed.
Still, the typical teenage banter and sibling arguments about food, phone chargers, and trying to ghost little brothers, give the reader time to exhale amidst the whirlwind of drama from benevolent and evil sorcerers, soulstalkers, a whispering tree, and “an army of sea barbarians.” The story reminds me of the Harry Potter series, with its gray-bearded sorcerers, a young, male protagonist fighting against evil, and a reference to the evil Voldemort. While I found it refreshing that Catherine Doyle calls the comparisons out within the story, I was looking for characters with more original features and traits, possibly relating to Irish Folklore.
The ending leaves many strands to lure the reader into the next installment and countless of them will be eager to follow the adventures left for Fionn to tackle. I, however, found the basic story premise nothing new and will likely not be reading further.
JENNIFER IRVINE is currently working towards a BFA in Creative Writing at UBC where she writes fiction, YA and is even dabbling in graphic novel writing. She has been published in York University’s Existere Magazine and UBC’s online Garden Statuary Magazine.