Welcome to 1,100 words of me gushing about one of my favorite YA fantasy series, the rocking maritime adventure Girl from Everywhere duology by Heidi Heilig. In the first book, The Girl From Everywhere, we meet Hapa teenager Nix (Hapa is a Hawaiian term usually meaning a person of Asian and white ancestry—in Nix’s case, she was born in Honolulu to her white father and Chinese mother). She is the first mate on the Temptation, a ship her father, Slate, uses to travel across time and reality. He is a Navigator, a person who can use a map to travel to the place and time depicted, whether real or fictional. Slate is desperate to return to Oahu in 1868 to save his wife who died shortly after Nixie was born. Nix fears that if he succeeds, the current version of herself will cease to exist. Things get way messier when the crew are tangled up in a plot to steal the King’s treasury and kickstart the American conquest of the Kingdom of Hawai’i.
By The Ship Beyond Time, Nix has learned the basics of Navigation and caught the attention of Donald Crowhurst, a fraudster turned king of a mythical island. Things on the island of Ker-Ys aren’t what they seem. The locals are suspicious and prone to accusations of witchcraft, the waters teem with sea monsters, the taverns are cluttered with mysterious bones, and a mad man with a key roams the cobblestone streets raving about prophecies. Tis the season for lies, unspoken truths, and betrayal. Crowhurst claims to hold the secret to rewriting history, but the cost of such knowledge may be a price Nix is unwilling—or unable—to pay.
Navigators can visit any place or time as long as they have an original map and the cartographer believed in what they drafted. Over the course of the series Nix and the Temptation visit modern day New York City, several different versions of 19th century Hawai’i, the underground city built to house the dead Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang and his terracotta army, ancient Greece, and even the mythical Breton island of Ys. There’s a moral in there somewhere about believing in something bigger than oneself and accepting the world as a place of infinite variety, but it’s one Nix has a hard time learning.
While ashore in the first book, she’s tempted by a life that might have been in the form of dashing Blake Hart, a wealthy haole (a person, usually white, that is not a Native Hawaiian but lives in Hawai’i) whose father views Hawai’i as little more than plunder. Pulling her back to the only life she’s ever known is Kashmir, a rakish rapscallion whom Slate rescued from a fantasy land inspired by the French retellings of Scheherazade. Each boy offers her something different, but whichever she chooses will have permanent consequences for her future.
By the time they land at Ker-Ys, Nix’s future is as gray and murky as the fog at the margins of a Navigator’s map. If The Girl from Everywhere is about Nix accepting that her past has made her who she is, The Ship Beyond Time is about her learning that the future is up to her. Nix must decide if her actions as a fledgling Navigator, both in the ancient past and modern age, are fate asserting its dominance or destiny reshaping itself to her whims.
Will she grow up to be the person she’s expected to become, or will she decide for herself what she wants out of life? And which life? The life her parents hoped for, the life Kash fantasizes, the life Blake mourns over, the life Nixie dreams of? She could choose one of those paths, let the past choose for her, or choose something entirely different and new. But isn’t that adolescence in a nutshell? Being a teenager is all about choices, those made by adults on our behalf and those we must make for ourselves. As children we let others guide us, and when something goes awry, adults are there to clean up the mess. Teenagers, though, they’re caught in the gray in between where the future is both distant and immediate, where decisions matter more than anything in the world yet can be easily changed, and where everything is incredibly important and unimportant at the same time.
The Girl from Everywhere and The Ship Beyond Time are beautiful stories with compelling characters and thrilling action. Nix isn’t much for strategy—even when she plans ahead she still ends up stumbling headfirst into impulsiveness—but she’s keenly observant and smarter than she thinks she is. She’s the kind of protagonist I love: an imperfect, eager, determined woman with a good head on her shoulders even when she fails spectacularly.
Heilig’s text is stirring and striking. That she can manage to keep page after page of sailing-related metaphors connected to Nixie’s predicaments without devolving into puns is a feat all on its own. The way Heilig describes the places Nix visits is lush and imaginative. You can almost smell the crisp ocean air, feel the damp chill of the margin fog, taste the juicy sweetness of freshly picked mango, hear the creak of an old wooden ship.
Tears filled my eyes; I tried to wipe them away, but they flooded in, too fast to bail. My breath hitched in my throat, and I shuddered like the ship in a storm. A terrible weight crushed the air out of me, and sobs struggled up through my chest like bubbles from a rift in the floor of the sea. When she wrapped her arms around me, I clung to her as though she were a raft. The world spun inside my head, and fragmented thoughts popped up like flotsam from a wreck…Finally the tide of my own tears ebbed, and I blinked away the last of them. My face was hot and I felt strung together with loose twine. I lifted my chin and took deep tremulous breaths.
Of course there’s romance, but Heilig puts a harsh twist on it. On one hand, Nix re-enacts that hoary old love triangle YA trope by being torn between two attractive young men who are polar opposites of each other. On the other, she’s stares down two futures she’s not sure she really wants and isn’t sure she can even have.
And oh, the diversity! The glorious, wondrous, beautiful diversity. The majority of the cast are people of color and/or queer. Heilig, a Hapa author, never shies away from race as a factor of the characters’ lives. It’s a very different experience to visit the past as a white girl than it is as a woman of color, and the nuances of that are something only another woman of color could really get right.
One of the things I always hate about time travel stories is how white the perspective usually is. When people ask me if I’d ever want to go back in time, my answer is always “hell no.” Look, I’m a queer Black woman. My ability to simply exist in public spaces without being oppressed in every conceivable way still isn’t a thing today, much less a century ago. The only time travelling I’d ever do is to go see Robert Johnson or Billie Holiday perform, then right back in the TARDIS, no wandering around to explore. No way, no how. Heilig doesn’t get quite that deep in her series, but racism/sexism/homophobia and bigotry are touched on in an honest, eyes open way.
What Heilig has done with this duology is nothing short of astonishing. For cartography, history, mythology, and fantasy fiction nerds, the Girl from Everywhere series is practically tailor made. You need to read this series, and you need to read it right now.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.