Traci Chee’s Sea of Ink & Gold follows the story of Sefia, a young girl whose father is brutally murdered, prompting her to flee with her aunt Nin with a mysterious object in tow. As if losing both her parents wasn’t bad enough, Aunt Nin is kidnapped and Sefia finds herself alone, left to figure out why her family’s being torn into pieces. The only clue Sefia has that could help her find her aunt is the object she carried away from her house – an object she soon realizes is a book. In a world where reading and books are non-existent, Sefia begins to learn how to read through past cues taught by her parents. With the help of a hunk of paper, a stranger, and a group of pirates, Nin sets out to look for her aunt and find justice for her parents.
Traci Chee’s Sea of Ink & Gold series is a fantastically lush tale full of all the elements that make a YA fantasy great: charming and eccentric pirates, mysterious assassins, apprentices, magic, and schools. But despite having commonly recurring elements in the genre, Chee makes the story entirely her own. What makes The Reader stand apart from its peers are four key elements.
1. Books about books are an instant sell, but sometimes, they feel gimicky. The Reader is anything but gimicky.
As bookworms, we naturally relate to characters who read, and the ability to connect with a story is ultimately what makes or breaks a book. Most of the “books about books” we get in the YA genre are contemporaries, and they often resort to gimicks. The characters are either completely ruled by their books, making them seem unidimensional which is frankly offensive to me as a reader and a person. Sometimes the reading element is incorporated so heavily that the universality of it is taken away. There’s… little originality in books about books, but Chee manages to come up with something wholly original, something unlike I’ve ever read before.
To incorporate a book as a foreign object into a tale where the main character doesn’t even know what it is… that’s a bold, risky move. However, Chee manages to inject the entire magic of reading for the first time, coming to realize the power of storytelling and the sheer weight of words, into the story so brilliantly that it’s a feast for a bookworm. It’s madly inventive, completely new (at least it was to me), but retains both the magic of reading as well as a sense of universality so that every bookworm will be able to relate. The result is a deep connection to a focal point of the story. And once you’re connected, you’re in.
2. The element of surprise lies in the ensemble cast of characters and the exquisite subplots of each.
The summary of the book is misleading in many ways; going into the first book, I had thought it would center entirely on Sefia and her journey, which made me wary. Fantasies that revolve around one perspective often fall flat because you just don’t get enough flavor of the entire world-building. However, Chee includes several different locations viewed from the eyes of characters that are vastly different from each other, both in terms of personality and their occupations. The result is several subplots interweaving in subtle ways with the main plot. It’s intricately handled, and beautifully maintained throughout the story; you have enough characters that you’re kept on your toes trying to keep up with them, but they also show up frequently enough in the right places to keep you going without getting lost.
3. Speaking of the characters, they’re all brilliantly fleshed out with distinct personalities, motivations and arcs.
What makes a story soar? Is it the action that drives the story forward, or is it the characters who don’t seem like playthings to the story’s whims but rather the driving force dictating the story, discerning where it will go at their discretion and their discretion alone? Some argue the former; I’m of the opinion that slower stories that take the time and commitment to build characters, even if it may bore some, ultimately hit the mark. Chee does just that with this series.
All her characters are magnificently constructed. They have distinct personalities, you know what their motivations are, their pasts, what’s going on in their heads at the present (or the best you can guess for non-protagonists), and a direction and investment into their futures. Sefia is a powerful main character; she’s not a warrior, she’s not physically the strongest, but she’s extremely determined, and her every move is seeped in perseverance and a strong sense of justice. Her astute observations and quick-thinking, her compassion and her loyalty are all attributes that make her such a lovable heroine. Archer, too, is just as well-developed, even though you don’t see him speak for much of the first book. Chee delves into his character using gesture, physical movements, emotive expressions, and the result is an incredibly layered, complicated, sensitive human being that you can’t wait to know more about.
4. Nothing ties together good storytelling elements than a solid, fluid writing style.
Chee has an incredible skill with words; her language is lyrical but not overly flowery. It’s succinct but never plain. She has a way with revealing just the right information at just the right time, which maintains the pace and flow of the story, while keeping you needing more. Ultimately, the sign of a great writer is their ability to immerse you into the page, and Chee manages to do that fantastically.
Blog Tour Schedule
About the Author
Traci Chee is an author of speculative fiction for teens. An all-around word geek, she loves book arts and art books, poetry and paper crafts, though she also dabbles at piano playing, egg painting, and hosting potluck game nights for family and friends. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. Traci grew up in a small town with more cows than people, and now feels most at home in the mountains, scaling switchbacks and happening upon hidden highland lakes. She lives in California with her fast-fast dog.