This book is a bildungsroman in a mythological setting. The archipelago of Thira (not to be confused with the Minoan island of Thera) was home to the Keepers, an ancient race of guardians of knowledge. A massive earthquake has practically destroyed the archipelago and left it to be dominated by Alaric, the evil White Wolf, and his Shadowmen. Nyssa is a 15-year-old who was orphaned at the age of three and has been brought up in a pub. No one knows how Nyssa’s parents died and she has a strange tattoo, presumably given her in infancy.
Suddenly it transpires that the heritage of the Keepers may not be lost. Nyssa’s tattoo includes half of a message in the ancient Keeper tongue. The other half must belong to a twin, presumed dead. Nyssa sets out on a quest to discover the truth about herself, the twin, the heritage of the Keepers and the future of the archipelago.
Arbuthnott’s characters are strong and generally credible with some wonderful female role models. One of the main characters in the book – to reveal which would be a spoiler – has a disability that dominates a good deal of that character’s performance in the narrative. The disability is handled with great deftness and sensitivity without infringing the integrity of the character – a rare accomplishment in any literary genre.
The pace is well sustained, except at certain points where the tempo flags occasionally when the protagonists are travelling. They have to lie low to avoid the Shadow Men and sometimes they risk losing our interest too. The plot is labyrinthine, with excellent twists and some of the qualities of a thriller. But complexity brings a price. Even a careful reader such as your critic found it necessary to check back for crucial details at least initially. But the effort is worth making. There are serious themes embedded below the adventure story, including the nature of slavery, the burden of self-harm and that ancient philosophical puzzle – what constitutes true knowledge.
The predominance of the female characters in this book may give it an extra appeal to young female readers. It is not a book for a quick, casual read. It deserves to be read slowly and carefully, and will pay rich dividends on the effort.