I received a copy of The Kingdom of Oceana for free to review from the publisher. So, here's my review!
The Kingdom of Oceana is told from the perspective of Ailani, the teenaged second son of the king of Royal Island (Hawai'i). One day, he and his brother Nahoa are exploring, when Nahoa dares him to go to a forbidden spot above a waterfall. There, they encounter a tiki head with a strange, malevolent power. Their encounter shapes their destinies, and that of all the island kingdoms of Oceana, forever.
This is a classic coming of age tale set in ancient Hawai'i. Ailani struggles with feelings of rivalry, jealousy, and friendship with his older brother Nahoa, who is bigger, stronger, more confident, and seems destined to become the next king. As we see from Ailani's perspective, Nahoa is frequently nasty, borderline abusive towards his younger brother. Their relationship is fascinating as it dances the line between normal sibling rivalry and toxicity. Ailani's main character arc is coming to accept himself for the person he is, rather than always trying to define himself in comparison to his brother.
Trouble plagues the different kingdoms in the form of international tensions between Ailani's father and the king of Pearl Island, which has become rich but corrupt. Pearls, in Ailani's culture, are sacred and magical gems; but Pearl Island has perfected the practice of creating manufactured pearls. This has created a deal of wealth for them, but also increased the wealth gap and made their king want more wealth, power, prestige -- even empire.
As a son of the king, Ailani is taken on a diplomatic mission to Pearl Island to try to resolve their differences. There, he befriends Momi, a princess, and together they unearth the corruption, cruelty, and sacrilege which have given Pearl Island much of its power. Ailani's father Haga doesn't believe that going against the natural order of things and discarding their beliefs is worth it just to achieve material wealth; obviously, the King of Pearl Island has a different outlook. Tensions rise and Haga is given an ultimatum: they have to submit to the rule of Pearl Island, or face war.
The depictions of the different kingdoms, their practices, and the figures controlling power are all detailed, engaging, and frankly a delight to read.
Another conflict is the resurgence of evil magic and the undead, caused by Ailani and Nahoa's disturbance of the tiki. The framing of magic in this book seems at first very black and white: there's light magic (good) and shadow magic (bad). But as the book goes on, we see that things are not necessarily so cut and dried. I was a little wary at first to see the strong opposition between light and shadow magic. It didn't seem to reflect the interplay between the two, the grey areas, that exist in many belief systems (and fantasy magic systems!).
However, by the end of the book, we've got light and shadow sorcerers coming together, each using different kinds of magic, as well as the introduction of something called luminescent magic -- the way energy flows between and throughout light and dark through all of the world. In the end, Ailani also has to embrace the shadow magic when it's needed if he wants to be victorious.
I personally would differentiate a bit between magic and spirituality as portrayed in the book. Magic appears to be a certain thing only accessible to some people, whereas spirituality -- finding one's spirit animal, sensing spirits, talking to animals and spirits throughout the world, accessing the spirit realm -- is a part of the world open to everyone (albeit sometimes under very specific circumstances, such as the vision quest Ailani and Nahoa must undertake to find their spirit animals). There's a lot of overlap between the two, but it was handled well in a way that I, at least, found easy to understand. A lot of this is based on Indigenous beliefs, and the author appears to have incorporated real spirituality and beliefs into a fantasy setting in a sensitive way. I don't practice those beliefs, so I can't speak with authority on this topic.
The Setting, Characters, and More
This all, gratifyingly, takes place in a pre-white-people world. While the author is not Hawai'ian, you can read more about his research process and where he drew inspiration on his website.
I also appreciated the fact that Puhi, Ailani's friend who is a Little Person, does not get a "magic cure" in the end. At one point, spoiler, he has his finger bitten off by a zombie. While magic saves his life, someone asks if another act of magic will restore his finger. The answer is no. That was a small thing, but quite gratifying considering how most fantasy uses magic to fix every disability, injury, or even minor inconvenience.
One thing that I did not particularly like was how the fat characters, notably the King of Pearl Island and his corrupt alchemist, are described. Several metaphors about their greed, coupled with the descriptions of their physical fatness, draw distasteful parallels between their corruptness/wealth/greed and them being fat. Fat characters, particularly fat corrupt royals and such in fantasy, are often coded as evil, and their physical appearance stands in for their metaphorical "hunger" for power.
The settings are a delight to read and you feel like you are actually there. Also, Ailani, being Hawai'ian, uses Hawai'ian words to describe the important things around him even though the book is written in English. When a new Hawai'ian word is introduced, there's a linked footnote to a definition at the end of each chapter. At the definition, another link takes you back to your place. Once a word has been defined the first time, it's never footnoted again. So, the book doesn't presume that you do know the words, but it doesn't assume that you don't, either. This was a FAR more organic way of using Indigenous terms in an English-language book than doing something like having Ailani stop to explain what they mean in the middle of his thought.
More About Sibling Rivalry, Because I'm A Sucker For That
I found the sibling rivalry one of the most interesting factors in the book. Ailani and Nahoa are the main pair of siblings, but there's another pair (not revealing because it's a major spoiler) as well as a historical pair of brothers. While the rivalry themes mainly center around brotherhood, other family dynamics are explored as well. For instance, Nahoa and Ailani's mother clearly favors Nahoa, while their father seems more fair in his treatment of the brothers.
And while the book handles themes of sibling rivalry, it also doesn't show just one cut-and-dried way to resolve -- or not resolve -- it. While we get to see the good sides of Nahoa, his bullying is never excused as just a misunderstanding. This is an important contrast to the other pair of brothers, whose toxic relationship IS just based on a misunderstanding.
As for female characters, there's Luina, who is younger but already learning to become a master of seafaring and navigation. I did wish she played a more prominent role in the climax of the book, but she dropped out of the plot at some point. Ailani's mother is a more troubled, but complex, character. She has abrupt mood swings and is easily swayed by promises of wealth and pretty things. However, it's hard not to sympathize with her unconditional love for even the bullying Nahoa, or with her being upset when her husband leaves to journey for weeks or months at a time.
Finally, there's Momi, the princess of Pearl Island. There's a minor love triangle, but it's pretty clear who Momi prefers from the start. I feel like a lot of plots concerning coming of age are wrapped up with "and the hero gets the girl," but The Kingdom of Oceana didn't do that. Momi plays an important role in helping expose corruption and get rid of the evil magic, and in the end, it's understood that Momi and Ailani will continue their relationship. However, there's not a gross moment when she gifts him her love as a prize, as we sometimes see. Actually, the end of the novel focuses on a mother's grief, and Ailani trying to mend things with her and make things right within his own family.
One thing that helped with avoiding this trope is that the ending is definitely ambiguous -- there's certainly room for a sequel and more trouble down the line. Another thing is that Momi and Ailani establish their relationship earlier on, and are able to work as a team to help everyone in the finale. They're equals and I appreciated that.
Cover and Title
I wasn't particularly enthused about the cover art or title, to be honest. The cover art is pretty, but I like to see characters or action on the cover myself. Like a significant scene such as Ailani, Puhi, and Luina on the wa'a going into the mists, or something. Maybe I'm weird. You might like the cover. It didn't really tell me all that much about the book that the title itself didn't. You can read more about the title art and artist here.
As for the title, it reads to me like something out of a history book, almost signalling a nonfiction work. This is probably just me being weird. If not for the blurb, I'd also be a little unclear on genre; I was initially unsure whether this was purely historical fiction or fantasy, or historical fantasy, or whether it was a purely fantasy world just based on Polynesian and Pacific Islander culture. Just so you know, it's historical fantasy (set on Earth in the past, but with fantasy elements). At least, that's how I understood it!
I'm not Hawai'ian and have never even been to Hawai'i, so I can't speak to the book's authenticity of setting or comment on how it uses culture. I'll leave that up to reviewers who are. The author does talk about his process and people who helped build the book on his site, which I've already linked. I personally found this an overall delight to read, the descriptions a sensory marvel, the characters well-drawn and developed, and overall it's a gem of a find if you're looking for indies to read. 5 stars.