Imagine Hawaii set 500 years in the past, when people traveled between islands with outrigger canoes and took long sea voyages to distant islands like Tahiti. In this alternative, but ancient Hawaii, there is old magic and sorcery, wise kings and not-so-wise kings, spirit journeys in the ocean, and lots of sibling rivalry. Ailani and his brother Nahoa are royal princes who are coming of age, and they see the world through very different eyes. Their family is faced with a great threat from outside, although some see this threat as a new future for the islands.
The Kingdom of Oceana, a first novel by Mitchell Charles, explores loyalty, family dynamics, romance, power struggles, tradition versus progress, and finding one’s place in the world. Things are not always what they appear to be on the surface.
The writing is clean and the story moves quickly. The dialogue is entertaining and believable, especially the conflicts between Ailani and his brother. The author seems to draw on his own personal experience as a sibling, or as a parent of two teenagers.
Because the story is an imaginative work of an alternative and magical ancient Hawaii, readers should not expect accuracy in details of what old Hawaii was like 500 years ago. Details like lavender essential oil, fire walking, monkeys in Tahiti, tropical fruits that may not have been grown at that time, or men and women eating together – which would likely never have happened in Hawaii 500 years ago, could stick out for readers wanting a more historically grounded perspective on ancient Hawaii. Instead, it’s best to flow with the story and accept the adventure and fantasy that Charles presents.
However, the Hawaiian words and phrases used in the book are real, not fantasy. The culture of Hawaii flavors the book and readers will learn some aspects of Hawaii that are based in fact, like respect for the ocean, lava sledding, and personal gods who protect the family. Charles has a glossary to help readers with unfamiliar words.One can learn some useful Hawaiian words by studying the glossary.
While geared for young adult readers, adults may find The Kingdom of Oceana enjoyable as well. Ailani is a charming protagonist who, over and over, must learn to trust himself and his inner wisdom, despite the consequences. This message is good for young people, but also a reminder for adults. The theme of potential devastation to their island kingdom also mirrors threats that our current world is facing. Some readers may find the environmental message a bit preachy or some scenes too whimsical, but I think that Charles’ love of the natural world and the ocean is a core strength of the book. Some of the ocean scenes are quite captivating.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book and was asked to review it in hopes of a favorable review. Since I am curious about Hawaii-inspired fiction (though I do have a lot of books on my reading list), I thought it would be fun to read. I was a little concerned since some first novels are awkwardly written or painful to read, but thankfully this was not the case. So, yes, I would recommend it for teenagers with an interest in Hawaii, the ocean, or an exotic adventure. Or for adults who like reading YA (young adult) adventure stories.