Whether she’s battling magical spirits or dealing with unrequited love, 17-year-old Kateiko is plagued by drama in this high-fantasy meets coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of a tension-filled colonial world.
Haunted by visions of spirits and frustrated by her native tribe’s antiquated belief system, Kateiko departs on an epic journey through coastal rainforests to join an ally tribe in the north. Getting acquainted with Kateiko’s surroundings is a challenge at first; although Waller’s world-building is impressive, it makes for a slow start to the story. The novel’s back matter is essential reading in order to decode the many foreign places and phrases, and it’s hard not to feel pulled out of the action when you’re constantly referencing the glossary.
Once the reader gets used to the names of the different tribes and spirits, the story quickly picks up and Kateiko’s romantic struggles come to mirror those found in high school hallways. Sure, it seems even more passionate and somewhat predestined when Kateiko, an antayul (water-caller) falls for Tiernan, a jinrayul (fire-caller), but their relationship still follows many of the classic touchstones of a young romance – just with some added magic and political intrigue mixed in.
Societal conflict grounds this sprawling novel, specifically in the way it portrays the native tribes and their complicated relationships with the white settlers who have colonized their land. While the two groups sometimes coexist peacefully, strong racial prejudices persist; when the air spirit, Suriel, resurrects an old war, the colonists are quick to blame the natives for the spirit’s rage. The colonists are constantly “othering” the natives (Kateiko is commonly called a “wood witch” in reference to the indigenous peoples’ shape-shifting abilities), and although it’s a fantasy novel, the region’s prevalent racism feels drawn from the complicated history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and European settlers. (In her acknowledgements, Waller credits the nations of the Northwest Coast in Canada as the inspiration for her novel.)
While the magical and romantic elements of Waller’s story are most likely to hook teen readers, it’s the commentary on colonized cultures that really sets this novel apart from other YA fantasy tales.