Reviews /

The Kingdom Over the Sea

Authored by Zohra Nabi
Illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole
Published by Simon & Schuster Ltd

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Zohra Nabi’s debut novel, The Kingdom Over the Sea, is a fast-paced, magical and engaging tale. It follows Yara, who, at the start of the story, is coming to terms with the loss of her mother. Social care is involved, and Yara is preparing to leave her home. That is, until a letter from her mother adds a layer of intrigue that Yara cannot ignore, urging her to ‘return home to Zehaira…and ask for the sorceress Leyla Khatoun.’ Faced with being left alone or risking it all, Yara figures she has nothing to lose, and absconds.

Through the use of a safe passage spell, Yara finds herself in Zehaira, but as soon as she begins to ask for Leyla, her understanding of the peril she is in begins to grow. Leyla is – or was? – indeed a sorceress, but sorcery is outlawed, and Yara stumbles upon alchemy that seems designed to harm. A chase ensues, and it isn’t long until Yara arrives at safety.

Her journey remains perilous, and is both a journey of travel and of self-discovery. Yara realises who she really is, and becomes that little bit braver, and that little bit more willing. She has always shot from the hip, but eventually comes to value others too. There are political messages here about how we treat people, and how maltreatment of groups of society can happen quickly, often through the power of words.

I enjoyed Yara’s journey, not least her love-hate relationship with her jinn (a genie-like figure), Ajal. Others are wary of Yara but soon see that she has a gift that needs guidance, and work with her for the greater good. The ending left me a little uncertain, but there is a second title to look out for…

Tom Clohosy Cole’s illustrations are beautiful, and my only complaint would be that there ought to be more! Over the course of 300+ pages, there are three or four detailed illustrations that more than support the story, particularly when it is set in a fast-changing fantasy world. I for one would have happily pored over more.

It is always good to read a story that has a cultural backdrop different to my own, though it isn’t especially clear from where this originates. Yara’s character mentions Iraq as a possible birthplace; clothing such as salwar kameez and headscarves are included; bazaars heaped with herbs and spices are present; we read of foods such as baklava and sambusak. None of which are from one particular place of reference – but perhaps that is the point. The world in which Yara finds herself might reflect many children – certainly those who I teach – and if they can see something of themselves in the story, then this is no bad thing at all.

Overall, I did enjoy Yara’s story and will certainly be seeking out the second title, The City Beyond the Stars, as (hopefully) Yara continues to grow in stature.

Longlisted for the Branford Boase Award 2024