I really didn’t want this review to be negative, but in the name of honesty, I don’t think I can avoid it.
On a positive note, the idea for this story is original and has a lot of potential – the intriguing concept of the book was what drew me to it. 16 year old Eliza is a mixed race girl who has been struggling with her identity, and is sent to England to escape racial tensions on the island where she was brought up. Unfortunately, the town she arrives in hides its own secrets, including mysterious disappearances and a doorway to another world. Eliza goes through this door and finds herself in a dangerous fantasy realm, where she is forced to confront her identity while trying to escape from other-worldly creatures with a strong dislike of humans.
The book blurb describes the tale as, “suspenseful and enchanting, The Return of the Key explores the power of love, sacrifice and the journey to self-acceptance.”
It so could have been.
I was so disappointed – perhaps because I’m not really a reader of fantasy fiction – but I had hoped for more. In all fairness, I didn’t make it to the end; I gave up about 60% of the way through. I apologise in advance if I’ve missed something amazing.
The two main problems for me were that many elements of the book felt rushed – for example Chapter One, which is really confusing, is titled ‘ENGLAND’ but at the start of the chapter Eliza’s still living with her grandparents in Trinidad. She’s mixed race and living in an area where the Trinidadians are polarised according to their racial background – and she doesn’t fit in anywhere. She’s being bullied at school after writing an article for the school magazine about racism.
Her grandpa decides to send her with her grandma to England to escape the tensions, just until after the elections have taken place on the island. Then, half way through the chapter, suddenly she’s in England. There’s barely a mention of how the decision was reached, what the article said, Eliza’s feelings and thoughts on her own racial background or this momentous decision that’s been made for her at such a formative age.
The writer, Alisha Nurse, missed such an opportunity to build Eliza’s character, but instead thrust her straight into a new school where she instantly bonds with Gwen, another outsider. She meets her on page 19 and by page 22 they are best friends forever. Their friendship is explained by a ‘chemistry that was unexplainable and almost immediate’ – but we’re talking about two 16 year old girls here, notoriously cliquey. Would a new girl really be accepted so readily? Again, I felt that there was a missed chance here to give the girls a back story, develop their characters and make the reader care for and root for them.
Sadly, for most of the book, I didn’t. The ‘mysterious disappearances’ happen so quickly that I had to reread a chapter to work out what had happened. Eliza’s own transition to the otherworld was rushed and there was very little suspense involved.
Once in the mystical realm, the story seems to focus more on florid descriptions of plants and landscapes than it does on the plot or characters. The author does have a beautiful turn of phrase, some parts are incredibly descriptive and very pretty, and she puts a lot of effort into coming up with names for the myriad of creatures that Eliza and Gwen come across. There’s a clear undercurrent of racial tension in the tale, from Eliza’s roots to Gwen’s own background, and the reception the girls get when they find themselves in the other world. Humans are banished from the Realm and the girls are in clear danger, despite the fact all they want to do is make things right, return the key from the title and go home again.
I did find that the Return of the Key reminded me of the fantasy adventure games that I played on my Dad’s ZX Spectrum in the 1980s, with its Black Lake and Mirror Lake, a Mermaid’s Lair and more. In the end, I’m afraid I couldn’t read on as I was just skimming the descriptive paragraphs to find something meaty, a bit of character development, some emotional connection to the main characters. At one point I even checked to see if it was a children’s book!
It’s such a shame, as there is massive potential in this story and if the main characters were as well described and developed as the descriptions of the magical realm they are exploring, the book could have been gripping.
As it was, I’m afraid I can only give it a rather disappointing 1.5 bites.