[Review] Broken Shell Island

Broken Shell Island

  • Broken Shell Island
  • By: Dalya Moon
  • Book 1 of the Witches of West Shore series
  • Rating: 4 (out of 5)

I would classify this book as YA; despite the main character’s age, I would say it leans on the younger side, similar to the early Harry Potter books. I am certainly not in the target age group, but I very much enjoyed reading this one.

This story focuses on Opal Button, who has just turned fifteen. For her birthday she really wants a bike, but her grandfather (her only family, as far as she knows) gifts her with his battered old suitcase instead. And then he tells her to fill it with her belongings, because he’s sending her off to live with her great-aunt on Broken Shell Island.

Opal is somewhat distressed by this, because she has never heard of this great-aunt, and the only Broken Shell Island she knows is the one in the kids’ books written by her grandfather’s friend Flora. But her grandfather insists, so she packs, and they head off. Soon, her grandfather hands her off to a strange man in a small fishing boat. He takes her out to sea, tosses her suitcase in the water and then tosses Opal herself. As she’s trying to figure out what just happened, the dark man is motoring away, shouting “You must hold on to the suitcase!”

Now, Opal of course thinks the man is insane, but at least the suitcase floats. So she grabs onto it, expecting it to sink, but it doesn’t, and she realizes it’s actually taking her… somewhere.

After a while afloat, the suitcase brings her to a beach. With cliffs. And little else. She wanders around, but there’s no way up the cliff. Except… in the stories she’s read of Broken Shell Island, the kids drew doors or stairs with chalk on cave walls and the like. So she finds some chalk and makes herself some steps, and it works!

This is just the beginning of Opal’s amazing new life on the magical island. She meets the people, who have no contact with the mainland except for what washes up on shore. She discovers most of what she knew from the stories is… not quite what the island is. For instance, calling it Broken Shell Island is bad luck. People don’t draw doors that open. And We Don’t Eat The Goats. Who don’t talk. Despite what the two goats who led her from the cliff to civilization might have said when she wasn’t looking.

She meets her great-aunt (suitably strange), a boy who bugs her about movies and comics and all things mainland, and three witches in training, among others. The townsfolk dislike the witches and think they’re evil. Opal’s new friends take her to a magical chocolatier and help her buy new clothes (the poor suitcase didn’t make the trek inland) and she thinks they’re awesome. She even discovers her much-requested bicycle has come to the island for her. But things are not always what they seem even on a magical island, and, well, hijinks ensue. The witches are involved, of course. And the goats.

The worldbuilding (island-building?) details for Broken Shell Island are gloriously imaginative, with such gems as a forest where the trees themselves rain, birds that live in the ocean, and feathered snakes that get quite mad when you stare. It’s got the kind of impossible things that kids love to read about; charming, quirky characters; and rules and habits that make no sense but make perfect sense. Most of the characters are used to the strangeness, but only the West Shore witches actually create their own magic feats. And possibly Opal, but she’s not allowed to discuss that with anyone.

The mystery aspect of this story (and it is a mystery, at the core: there is a murder at the beginning, and a heaping cupful of whodunnit) is well done, in my estimation. It’s simple, but anyone who reads mysteries knows that the basic plot of any mystery is simple; the author does a good job with her red herrings and leading the audience from one missed guess to another. The final reveal is not a particular surprise, but this is also a mystery for kids/YA; it doesn’t need to be complex.

The author doesn’t shy from putting her characters in danger, though with such a magical location, the damage is relatively easily reversed. This makes for a mellower book, exciting in a way that won’t keep its readers up at night. Additionally, the author doesn’t stoop to magicking everything right; the challenges are ultimately overcome by the characters and by their own agency. That said, making the consequences disappear has the potential to undermine the story by making it appear too easy. I don’t think the author did this, but it’s one of those fine lines to be aware of.

I loved that the sheriff, a major character, was a woman, and that even thought there was little serious crime on the island, she was practical and knew what she was doing. She will make a good role model for Opal in later books, especially since the great aunt is… easily distracted.

I also liked that the nascent romance stays nascent and avoids the angsty early-crush drama that so often shows up in YA (as well as adult) stories these days. It’s not a significant part of the plot, so while there are hints, it remains appropriately in the background.

And I adored the goats, and the mythology of the goats. Yes, there is a mythology of goats. Who could pass that up?

On the negative side, there were a fair number of instances where the magic jumps the characters just to where they need to be with no real motivation beyond “it’s magic.” There’s a lot of coincidence. The line between using magic to augment the plot and using it to direct the plot is a thin one at best, but it does make the transitions a little abrupt. The target audience is unlikely to notice, I realize, but tailoring the plot to the audience’s limitations could potentially backfire.

The writing is solid, and the grammar’s pretty good. It’s obvious that the author’s writing from a British Isles perspective; there is that slight, definitive British tone to the text which I personally find charming. Some of my favorite books from when I was a child came from British authors, and back in my day (as they say), publishers didn’t try to Americanize the language to make it “more accessible” or whatever.

This is a solid, enchanting, magical-world YA, with a good storyline and some brilliant hooks. In all honesty, I rarely see as much unbridled imagination in play these days. Where are the Broken Shell Islands of grownup books?

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