At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel. At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more. The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.
It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater. Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo. Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason. It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby. With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit. Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race. The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.
By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home. Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone. A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.
Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson. As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.
WHY I LIKE IT:
You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans. We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride. Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.
Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future. She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem. She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.
There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details. There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more. So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me. I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog. There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing. I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.
Some language and a kiss. There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.
Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/