Dreams–meaning hopes and goals and aspirations–can be a complicated business. They usually aren’t, though, in Juvenile and YA books. Usually the message there is that if you believe enough and work hard enough, you can achieve anything. I believe that (to a point) and it’s a message with value. But I was impressed that Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun, a definite YA book, tackles the question of dreams in a far more complicated way.
Cerinthe, the heroine, has always loved to dance. She’s also a skilled folk healer, but when her skills fail to save her mother’s life, Cerinthe resolves to give up healing and sets off for the capital to join the Royal Dancing Academy. After some slightly contrived difficulties getting in, Cerinthe quickly begins to shine at the Academy. This puts her in fierce competition with Elliana, the reigning star pupil.
There’s a pretty good plotline and good characters, but it was really the setting and the themes that stood out to me. Both the dancing school and other areas of the city are brought to vivid life through descriptions, and I enjoyed following Cerinthe through them.
It’s mostly the theme about dreams that has stayed with me after reading this book. It’s a little more complex than this, but for discussion’s sake, let’s say that achieving one’s dream depends on three qualities–talent, passion and discipline. Usually stories (and not only YA ones) assume that characters will have all three. In Aria of the Sea, we see dancers who have the desire and the willingness to work hard, but simply don’t have the natural skill to succeed. Elliana has the skill and the passion, but lacks discipline. Another supporting character has the talent and the willpower but feels no joy in her dancing. And Cerinthe–well, Cerinthe finds out another complicated thing about dreams. Namely, it’s not always so easy to determine just what your dream really is.
In the old fairy tales, beauty and goodness (and conversely, ugliness and evil) are almost always equated. A good character is always beautiful. We’ve departed from that (somewhat), but I think there’s still a strong bias to make the good characters talented. To some extent it just makes sense–a good heroine (or hero) is most of the time likable, and also possessed of qualities that will drive a plot, often some sort of talent. As a rule I think it’s done because it works, but it’s also interesting to see a book that calls that correlation into question. Elliana is deeply unpleasant but also extraordinarily talented–likability and talent don’t always equate.
I didn’t exactly love this book–the characters and plot were good but not landmark–but it was thought-provoking. And another example of the depths that good YA can explore!