Lost in her favourite books, 11-year-old Lan can almost forget about how much she misses her mother and younger brother, both still in Việt Nam. Though books can’t quite make the basement apartment she shares with her father in Toronto feel as much like home as their family’s apartment in Hà Nội, they can at least make her loneliness a bit more bearable.
So when a mysterious wind whisks her into the epic fantasy she’s reading, Lan is eager to join Annabelle and Marlow, the book’s protagonists, in their quest to save Silva, Annabelle’s homeland, especially since Lan turns out to be a powerful witch. Lan must learn to harness her magic in time to help the trio survive a trek across dangerous terrain, fantastical creatures out to stop them, and a king unwilling to help in any way.
The early chapters in Toronto are vivid, gripping, and emotionally rich, yet when Lan gets to Silva, the story loses its stride. There’s magic in Silva, yet it takes a few chapters for Silva to truly feel like a world. Annabelle and Marlow’s characters are established fairly quickly (badass and kind-hearted), but they are more archetypes than people. Marlow, particularly, feels underdeveloped.
The magic itself could also have used more development. Lan’s ability to grow food is unique, and often richly symbolic, but the broader system of magic in Silva isn’t quite fully realized. In the early chapters set in the alternate world, the use of magic feels more like a plot device than part of an organic whole.
Still, the story does pick up after a battle injury forces the trio to take a long rest from their journey. Lan begins to learn what her magic can do, Annabelle begins to open up, and the rest of the novel is a page-turning race to the finish. A meeting with an all-knowing being is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, the encounter with the king is satisfyingly action-packed, and Lan’s return to Toronto is beautifully cathartic and triumphant.
Nguyễn draws strong parallels between Annabelle’s quest in Silva and Lan’s quest to make a home in Toronto. She gets a bit heavy-handed with her messaging in the Silva sections so at times that quest pales in comparison to the captivating real-world events in Toronto. That being said, it’s a powerful and uplifting message, and kids adjusting to new homes will find a lot of themselves in Lan’s journey, and perhaps a bit of Lan’s courage in themselves.