Book Review: Lalani of the Distant Sea

Imagine you are a reader. You are curious. You feel wary and excited, as you always do when you start a new book. But you have nothing to fear this time, from the first page you are entranced by the beautiful and brutal world of Lalani and the Distant Sea.

Title: Lalani of the Distant Sea

Author: Erin Entrada Kelly

Quick Pitch: Twelve-year old Lalani must sail across deadly waters to reach a magical island and save her dying village.

Why it’s diverse: all human characters are poc, explores elements of Filipino culture/folklore 

#OwnVoices: Yes

CWs: death, blood, violence (only one or two instances that could count as graphic)

Rating: 4/5 friendly pahaalusks 

Lalani and the Distant Sea is the first fantasy novel by award-winning Middle Grade author Erin Entrada Kelly. While Lalani is inspired by the folklore of Kelly’s Filipino heritage, the story takes place in its own unique and fascinating world. Twelve-year-old Lalani lives on the island of Sanlagita, where the birds cannot sing, everyone must follow strict, societal rules, and a long drought has put the whole village in peril. Every few years the strongest men of the village sail out towards Sanlagita’s only hope, a magical island to the north called Isa. No one has ever returned from the journey. Lalani tries to help her village, making a dangerous pact — and an even more dangerous magical wish — with a mysterious outsider. When the wish only makes the situation is Sanlagita worse, Lalani has no other option than to sail to Isa herself and hope it really does have the magic to save her people. 

Lalani is a fairytale in the Grimm sense — fantastical, gritty, often sexist (though, in this case, it is most certainly portrayed as a bad thing). Like many fairytales, Lalani is a story about stories, but one that expertly weaves all the narratives together to reveal that it was, in fact, simply one story after all. Kelly achieves this through hopping from one point of view to another, switching from third person to first person — even to second person, in chapters where Kelly asks the reader to “imagine” themselves as strange and magical creatures. While the point of view switching felt a bit jarring in the first half of the novel, the technique found its feet in the second half and began to enhance the narrative as a whole.

Lalani does not shy away from darkness. Loss is a theme that is heavily explored — every character has been touched by death and grief. But ultimately, Lalani is a story of courage, especially from those who are not brave. The narrative shows repeatedly that courage is a choice, and one that must be made again and again. This thematic through line leads to a very cathartic conclusion that left me feeling satisfied, despite a rather rushed ending. 

Overall, Lalani was truly a lovely book. The world building was very strong, and I was delighted by every new creature I got to meet, from the swirling-shelled pahaalusks to the the soul-drinking Whenbo trees. I enjoyed how every original folktale introduced would be proved both true and false by the end of the book. I only wish that the folktale saved for the end was given a more proper explanation and payoff, and that the climax wasn’t quite so abrupt. 

I would recommend Lalani of the Distant Sea to anyone who loves fairytales and folktales, anyone craving a unique hero’s journey, and/or anyone who enjoys creative and engaging storytelling. This book can be quite dark, but I believe it is still suitable for a mature 8+ audience. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope that Erin Entrada Kelly writes in the fantasy genre again soon. (Her newest book, We Dream of Space, is a Middle Grade contemporary, and it’s getting rave reviews. Go check it out!

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