When Dmitri, an 11-year-old bird watcher and math whiz, loses his mother to breast cancer, he is taken in by Mrs. Martin, an elderly white woman. Unaccustomed to the company of kids his own age, D struggles at school and feels like an outcast until a series of unexpected events changes the course of his life.
First, D is asked to tutor the school’s basketball star, Hakeem, who will get benched unless his grades improve. Against the odds, the two boys soon realize they have something in common: they are both taunted by kids at school, and they both have a crush on Nyla, a beautiful but fierce eighth-grade girl. Then Nyla adopts D and invites him to join her entourage of “freaks.” Finally, D discovers an injured bird and brings it home from the park.
D is stunned when the strange bird speaks to him and reveals that she is really a guiding spirit that has been held hostage by ghost soldiers who died in Brooklyn at the start of the American Revolution. As Nuru’s chosen host, D must carry her from Brooklyn to the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, but the ghost soldiers won’t surrender their prize without a fight.
With the help of Hakeem and Nyla, D battles the Nether Beings who lurk underground, feeding off centuries of rage and pain. But it takes an unexpected ally to help the trio reach the ship that will deliver the innocent souls of the dead back to Nuru’s realm. An urban fantasy infused with contemporary issues and historical facts, Ship of Souls will keep teen readers gripped until the very end.
D has been on his own since his mother died of cancer. But being a math geek in New York City and trying to navigate school, a foster home and a new baby foster sister doesn’t leave much room for healing and hope. D eventually makes friends with some of his schoolmates, but then his life is interrupted by the appearance of a white bird that is more than it appears. It asks him an important question, and his answer takes him on the adventure of a lifetime, and through the historic past of the city he calls home.
First, let’s do the positive: for the first thirty pages of Zetta Elliott’s Ship of Souls, I was hooked. Here was an urban fantasy, featuring a black male protagonist, and his world and grief were vividly described. My sympathies were engaged, I was interested in the great characterization of the three teens at the focal point of the story, and I kept thinking to myself, “Oh, this is good,” with a little bit of relief, and a lot of anticipation.
Then a white bird showed up, and my main reaction to the rest of the book was “Umm…?!?”
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what, exactly, went so wrong. It was more than the inclusion of fantastic elements, because some of those worked, and worked well (the descriptions in that final scene underground were rather glorious). I think, and this is totally subjective, that there were two major issues. The first was uneven, stilted dialogue. The story was at its strongest when told in D’s head, from his personal point of view. It faltered numerous times when the reader was supposed to gather information and see plot movement solely through the medium of dialogue. In this case, not enough was SAID or added to the context of spoken words to make sense of scenes, characters, and swift plot changes.
Second problem: flat secondary characters. Elliott made D, Keem and Nyla real in the mind of the reader and each of these had different, understandable and complex motivations for his/her actions. On the flip side, the secondary characters, such as Nuru, Nyla’s mom, the soldiers and D’s foster mother, served only to point out character quirks and reasoning of the main characters. And yes, I said even Nuru. Billy, I give a free pass. Main lesson? Wherever characters-as-plot-devices go, disappointment is sure to follow.
While not without merit, this book could have done with more: a) developed dialogue, b) fantasy and history world-building, and c) secondary character development. Final verdict: Ship of Souls will leave the reader confused by its split personality, disappointed by its spoilt promise, and wholly underwhelmed. Want a second opinion? The Book Smugglers posted an extensive (and much more positive) review.
Recommended for: those interested in an urban fantasy featuring a POC main character and the ghosts of New York City, and anyone willing to take a chance on a short, uneven and non-traditional tale of redemption and friendship.