By Sahana C.
Consider this: every fairy tale you’ve ever heard is at least a little bit true. The Kingdom of Avalon is full of castles and magic, Alice really did travel all through Wonderland, and most of all – magic? Definitely real.
But at the exact same time, Rin Chupeco manages to surprise readers with twists on each story. Avalon is frozen (literally and metaphorically!) outside of time, Alice was a warrior, and all that magic has rules and regulations in ways that seem to make sense when you look around at the modern world.
The book opens in the Royal States, a monarchical version of the U.S., where everything is almost exactly the same as reality with the exceptions of a king and quite a bit more magic. The story even involves governmental agencies, with ICE taking on a prominent (and punny!) role throughout the course of the plot.
The hero here is a young girl named Tala. She comes from an incredibly powerful legacy, with her family hailing from both the Philippines and Avalon. Her entire lineage is made up of magic, despite being convinced that she lives in the most boring town in the entire Royal States, and she’s been told that she’s fairly powerful, too. She’s hesitant to believe it, though, considering her powers are exclusively centered on disrupting magic.
Her life changes in a big way when her family is called to protect the Crown Prince of Avalon, Alexei, who is the sole survivor of the royal family and has been in hiding for his whole life. Alexei’s dream is to revive his home country and take back his homeland by breaking the curse of the Ice Queen. In the meantime, though, he and Tala become fast friends, and he manages to enjoy a little bit of a normal high school, being sheltered by the Makiling clan, Tala’s super powerful family.
When the Firebird, the symbol of Avalonian royalty, finally arrives, Tala and Alexei are thrown into a whirlwind adventure, accompanied by the children of Avalon’s best and brightest heroes. All of them have something to prove and they don’t always get along, but they do come together to save a country they’ve all loved and longed for from afar.
You see, this whole book is a thinly veiled analogy for the immigrant experience and various facets therein. Tala’s whole family is Filipino, and she’s never been to the Philippines but longs to know more about her culture. Alexei had to leave Avalon as a child, forced out by war. The rest of the group that accompanies Tala and Alexei on their adventure also have varying levels of connection to Avalon: some have fond memories of childhood there, others have most of their family members stuck behind the border.
Chupeco makes it clear, through Tala, that regardless of how connected to country she is, she can still fully claim her heritage. Tala is told by trusted adults time and time again that she belongs, and Chupeco makes it even more explicit when she writes, “Just because you’ve never been to the Philippines doesn’t mean that their rivers don’t course through your blood. It doesn’t mean you don’t have their mountains in your eyes. It’s not where we are, it’s who we are. You’ll always be both a Makiling and a Warnock, and always a Filipina. Never forget that.”
I will say that some of the worldbuilding was a touch heavy-handed, and I had to go back and forth on the rules of magic and power in this universe Chupeco creates. Those moments could have benefited from a bit less, but they did not take away from the heart present in every chapter. First and foremost, this is a story about family, ones that are forged by blood and those that are found through friendship. For readers who are interested in YA fantasy, with an incredibly diverse and vibrant cast of characters who talk about the immigrant experience and recognize just how important food is as a bonding tool, this is the book for you.
Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.