An upper middle-grade fantasy novel about a refugee crisis in a coral reef.
Shortlisted for the 2019 Bath Children’s Novel Award
War has taken almost everything from Elter, a thirteen-year-old sea boy: his home, his family, even his tail. Fleeing his grief, he sets off from an underwater refugee camp on a raft bound for Opalsand, the one island in the Shimmer Reef that has remained neutral in the war, in hopes of securing aid for the starving seafolk he’s left behind.
Ronnie (also thirteen) is a surface girl with a hungry mind and a stutter she tries to hide. Her home, Opalsand, is the wealthiest country in the Reef, and a place that prides itself on its isolation and its pacifism. But for Ronnie, with her restless curiosity and fiery imagination, it’s a prison.
When Elter’s raft washes up on the Opalsandian shore, bringing stories of a crisis Ronnie knew nothing about, change begins to stir on the island. As Ronnie and Elter build a secret network of allies determined to help the refugees, Ronnie realizes this is her chance to escape the shackles of her island. For Elter, this might be his people’s only hope for survival.
But the government of Opalsand will stop at nothing to prevent the truth about the refugees and the war from getting out. And neither Ronnie nor Elter can imagine the challenges and betrayals that still await them, back in the refugee caves.
Reef grapples with timely yet timeless questions of privilege, prejudice, friendship, and belonging, illuminating the complex and beautiful magic of encountering the other.
You can read the first chapter of Reef below.
The hospital was little more than a long tent, staked to the sandy cave-bottom and crammed with beds. Jellylamps hanging from hooks on the ceiling cast a greenish-blue glow through the water.
Elter Vaar had been discharged earlier that evening, after three weeks, and given ten minutes to pack his few belongings. The bed would be needed by someone else tonight—many people, probably—but Elter simply couldn’t summon the energy to move. The moment he left the shelter of this hospital, he’d be assigned a dwelling tent and handed a ration card and be expected to somehow keep living.
He watched the walls breathe in and out with the current. He had heard that deep breaths helped with fear, anxiety, and sadness. But what were you supposed to do when you weren’t feeling anything at all?
At least the amputation was a success. That was what the doctors had told him, almost managing to smile. After the explosion ripped off half of Elter’s tail, the rest had gotten infected. They’d had to remove it or he would have died. Now all that was left was a short stump beneath his groin. Elter liked to call it The Success.
The only physical therapist in the caves had helped him learn to swim again. It wasn’t impossible. But what had once been effortless, thoughtless, the simplest joy, now took every drop of Elter’s strength and concentration. His body felt like a shapeless weight that had to be dragged through the water by his arms. Once, he had won races in school. Sprints. Never the long-distance swims. He’d never had the patience for those.
“Hey, Elter,” said a voice.
Swimming up to his bed was Niko, a boy from Elter’s school, two years older, whose father Arno was the commanding officer here in the refugee caves. Niko was stocky, cocky, and sly, with shoulder-length silver hair and a thickly muscled silvery-blue tail. He, like everyone, had lost someone: his older brother, killed in battle.
“I’m sorry about your tail,” Niko went on. “And your family.”
Elter’s family was a gaping black abyss in his mind. He didn’t go too close to it, or he might fall in.
“Since when have you cared one polyp about my family?” Elter said.
“Oh.” Niko grimaced like he’d just tasted something sour. “Forgive me for thinking we might as well be friendly to each other now that we’re all dying of starvation in a cave.”
Elter closed his eyes. Niko was right; the seaweed stocks were running out. Day by day rations were reduced. Even the most basic ointments and bandages had to be distributed according to need. They’d been awaiting a shark-cart delivery from Reef City for a week already, but all that had arrived was a messenger, burns all over her arms, saying the bombing of the sea-farms had intensified and the aid mission was delayed indefinitely. “What do you want, Niko?”
“I’m rounding up people,” he said, lowering his voice. The patients in the beds nearby were all either sedated or lost in their own pain, but Niko still seemed afraid of eavesdroppers. “I know you’ve got it in you.”
“Got what in me?” said Elter.
“Revenge,” Niko whispered. He was so close now, his rippling hair grazed Elter’s cheeks.
Elter slid upward against his pillow. “What are you saying?”
“The surface people bomb our city, kill as many innocents as they can, but we’re too afraid to leave the central reef to hit back at their villages. We’re stuck fighting them in open water, where of course we’re going to lose. No one’s dared attack them in their homes.”
Elter tried to imagine what Niko was suggesting, but it was impossible. The border of the sea people’s realm was a ring of cliffs built out of the coral; beyond it, the water was unbreathable. Elter knew the sea people’s ability to breathe underwater had something to do with magic, which was so powerful in the teeming central reef you could feel it sometimes, spinning like a whirlpool around you. It weakened further out towards the cliffs, then dissipated entirely on the other side.
“We can’t go past the cliffs,” Elter said. “You know that.”
“You’re wrong,” said Niko. “We can’t go past the cliffs underwater. We can breathe on the surface.”
“But we have no chance of defeating anyone on the surface.”
“Closed-minded thinking like that is why we’re losing the war,” said Niko. “But I have a plan.”
A plan. Sea people confined to the ocean’s surface were practically begging to be shot. Elter wasn’t intrigued. He wasn’t even curious anymore. He was strangely bored.
“Well, good luck,” he said.
Niko smiled slightly. He shrugged off a rucksack made of woven blue felweed. It was a rare seaweed, practically indestructible; Elter hadn’t seen any in years.
“Listen,” Niko said. “We swim above water from the cliffs to the Garricle Islands. Then, under cover of night, we approach one of the smaller villages and release these on the beach.”
He untied the drawstrings of the rucksack. Immediately from inside came a racket of tiny, excited snapping.
“You wouldn’t be on the mission itself,” said Niko, glancing at The Success. “Obviously. But I’m asking you to help collect more crabs. We need hundreds. Maybe thousands.”
“You’re mad,” said Elter. “It’ll be a slaughter.”
“Are you telling me they don’t deserve it?” Niko said, quickly tightening the drawstrings on the rucksack and knotting them.
Elter felt his mind tip toward his family and barely caught himself. “Maybe some of them do,” he admitted. “But the crabs won’t know the difference.”
“You’re just scared,” said Niko. “You’re scared like my dad and everyone else.”
“No,” said Elter. “I just don’t care enough.”
“Look at you,” Niko spat. “You can’t even swim. What could you possibly have to lose?”
It hit Elter like a punch in the jaw.
“You have no one, Elter,” said Niko. “You feel like no one. But the truth is, even you have something left. You do have something to lose, and you’re really, really close to losing it.” He swung his rucksack over his shoulder.
“What are you talking about?” Elter managed.
“You think your life has no purpose anymore,” Niko said, unstoppable. “You think your life is over.” He grabbed Elter by the collar of his hospital gown. “But it’s not,” he said. “It’s only just beginning.”
There were five thousand refugees here in the caves. All had come from Reef City, capital of Olimaar: country of the Olimaari, the sea people, the tailed humans. Elter knew many of the refugees; his quarter of the city, the northeastern quarter, had been hit hardest by the bombings. Apartments, schools, shops, cafes, bustling streets and plazas: rubble.
As Elter swam through the main cavern of the cave system, where the hospital, the terribly equipped school, and most of the tents were set up, he passed old neighbors playing games of kree or strumming on bowlfiddles and singing lullabies to their children. How they had the strength for it, Elter didn’t know. Mrs. Jomra, an incurable old gossip whose pastry shop had been blown up a few months earlier, called out to him from near the pit toilets—the stench was smothering—but Elter felt ashamed and didn’t answer. He focused entirely on swimming, cupping and parting the water the way he’d practiced with the therapist. His arms ached from exertion; The Success throbbed, missing his tail.
The last week had supposedly been his transition into life here in the caves—balance exercises, relearning how to sit on a toilet, swimming laps around the cavern, even working twenty-minute shifts at the distribution center, but always collapsing back into the hospital bed afterwards, breathless and nauseous, the head doctor Palina checking the swelling, giving him an ever-smaller dose of pain medicine. Only yesterday, finally, had she removed the sutures once and for all. This, apparently, meant he was healed.
Elter pushed himself further. At the far end, the main cavern narrowed into a tunnel whose rock walls, lit by jellylamps, were coated with slimy green plants. Moray eels with deadly teeth nested here, but they didn’t usually bother anyone who kept their fingers away from small crevasses.
On and on Elter swam. Right after leaving the hospital, he had dropped his bag of belongings in his newly assigned dwelling tent and left without a word to the family he was supposed to share it with, who were cousins of some old family friends. He needed the open water. That was all he knew.
It’s a race, he kept repeating in his head, just to that jellylamp, the fifth one away. When he reached it, he would start again. It’s a race. Just to that jellylamp. It’s you against you.
He passed several smaller caves, mostly crammed with people sleeping. Ragged breathing mingled with snores and the sudden shouts of people reliving their darkest moments. Elter’s entire body hurt so much he almost staggered into one of the caves himself and collapsed there beside the others. But if he lay down now, he would sleep, and if he slept, he would dream, and that was perhaps the one thing he was still afraid of.
Eventually, the tunnel began sloping upward. The jellylamps along the walls seemed to grow fainter. Any moment now he’d emerge into the Canyon.
The Canyon sliced through the shallow floor of the Reef like a great tear in the fabric of the ocean—it was the only crack, the only glimpse into the deep for hundreds of miles in any direction—and the sea people knew that surface people, the legged humans, told many strange stories about it. Hot gases would sometimes bubble up to the surface; massive waves and sudden storms would form there, sailors claimed, then hunt down every nearby ship. The refugees had set up camp inside the steep, rocky walls of the Canyon—dark and cold and miserable as it was—for just that reason. The Garriclers knew where they were hiding, but they were terrified of sailing there.
At last, the tunnel ended and the Canyon opened up before him. Elter looked out into the shimmering expanse of black and silver, the water so clear that even here, at this depth, it glittered with moonlight. Chambered nautiluses floated silently up in their bright spiral shells to the shallower waters where they hunted at night. Once, he would have found all this beautiful. Once, on the night of the coral spawning, he had taken his sister Fyona to a smaller valley on the outskirts of Reef City, and Fyona, who was only three at the time, watched the bubbles of light rising from the depths as if headed straight for the sky and asked, “Is that where stars come from?”
No, he thought, closing his eyes. Dangerous thoughts.
For a long time, Elter just sat there on the ledge at the very entrance to the cave system, the Canyon a bottomless black mouth below him. It was even deeper and darker than he’d remembered. If he swam down there, he would probably not have the strength to swim back up.
The night his house had been hit by the Garricle thundergun—the very night before his family was going to flee Reef City for the refugee caves—he’d been speed-swimming through the streets he loved. He was out past curfew; he knew it was to be his last night in Reef City for a long time, and besides, he hated rules as a matter of principle. He had been the reckless one, the foolish one, the one who should have died.
But he hadn’t left the house out of simple nostalgia or rebelliousness; he’d left because of his older sister, Toryn. They’d had a huge argument before going to bed. That afternoon, engrossed in a game of capture-the-coral with some kids from school, Elter had forgotten it was his turn to take Fyona to dance class. Since the war began, Mom and Dad wouldn’t let Fyona swim anywhere alone.
“You’re as responsible as a coral python,” Toryn had said, disgusted, brushing Fyona’s hair. (Coral pythons were known to eat their babies.) “All you think about is yourself.”
For once, Elter couldn’t come up with a sarcastic joke to throw back. He had never been so furious or so hurt. And the worst part was, Toryn was right.
He had shot out of the room before they could see him crying.
“Where are you going?” Fyona had asked, not angry or worried, just curious.
Now, staring down into the Canyon, it was Fyona’s voice he couldn’t shut out. She was like a volcano of questions, never satisfied, asking why this, how that, what if the sun goes on vacation. She would have grown up to be something special. A scientist, or maybe an explorer. She would have swum past the border cliffs.
But Fyona was asking, Why should I be quiet? Dizziness almost overcame him. Below, the blackness beckoned. It told him to let go, to let himself be swallowed.
It had been beckoning all day, he just hadn’t realized it.
He didn’t move.
But then from up out of the depths came a great rumble. The wall of the Canyon shook violently, and Elter, with a cry, fell off.
Down he sank, down, down, pulled by a sucking current that made steering or swimming up impossible. The darkness thickened, pounded against his ears, closed around him. It grew colder and colder. He couldn’t see his body. He felt that, at last, the rest of him had followed his tail, had followed his family, and he was gone.
They were gone.
Mom, Dad, Toryn, and Fyona.
He was sobbing now. And still he sank, so far down he might have fallen through some magical fissure right into the center of the Earth. This was where the gone things went. This was where everything was gone and goneness was everything, where it circled you and pressed against you and squeezed and squeezed you until you became part of the emptiness.
The sound shocked him. Pain zinged up his right arm. Those two sensations—sound and pain—reminded Elter that he was still, somehow, alive. He was lucid enough to realize that what he’d hit was neither coral nor rock.
The downward current had vanished. In the blackness, he felt around with his hands. He’d hit a surface that was hard and smooth. It seemed square in shape, each side a bit longer than Elter had once been. A straight pole-like object stuck out vertically from one end, and dangling from this was some kind of fibrous rope. Elter tugged on it, confused, and a blinding light flashed on.
Elter cried out, throwing his hands over his eyes. It took him two full minutes to adjust enough to lower them.
The light came from a jellylamp. In its turquoise glow he could make out the unmistakable shape of a Garricle mangrove raft—one of the nimble watercrafts that the Garriclers used for fishing. There were usually a few on board their gunships too, in case the ships got sunk. They were made of spidery mangrove roots lashed together with rattan fibers.
How? Elter thought. How could a wooden raft sink all the way to the bottom of the Canyon?
Trying to ignore the pounding in his ears, he searched the raft for signs of damage. There were no obvious holes anywhere, and the two long oars were still attached. As he looked, transparent fish with tiny beating hearts and wide, staring eyes began swarming around the jellylamp, casting bizarre shadows that stretched and slid across the surface of the raft.
There. Fiendishly knotted to one of the mangrove roots, a thickly braided rope of blue felweed. The handiwork of sea people, no question about that. Elter felt a chill, knowing now what he would find. He leaned over, so he could see beneath the raft. The rope extended below for a length of ten or eleven arms, where it stopped, tied securely to a massive, ugly, slime-covered boulder resting on the bottom of the Canyon.
What a twisted joke, that a thing so beautiful and precious as blue felweed could be turned to purposes like this. Elter looked around him for the bodies. Then he remembered that they would probably have floated up to the surface.
He tried to steady his breathing and do what had to be done. Rafts like these usually had supply caches built in. That might mean food or medicine to bring back to the caves.
It didn’t take him long to find. The base of the jellylamp pole was built into a wide oval-shaped box, caulked around the edges with some kind of pinkish paste. Elter lifted the clasp and carefully opened the lid.
There wasn’t much. The half-dozen clay containers of dried fish were all but useless, since only in the direst of emergencies would Olimaari eat animals. The ten skins of freshwater were just as disappointing; sea people’s kidneys were perfectly used to filtering out all the extra salt from the seawater they drank. Elter rifled through the remaining objects—various tools, wood, and rope that he guessed were for making repairs to the raft—until something caught his eye at the bottom.
It looked like paper, the treated eelweed-pulp that books were made of. Except this was thicker, and softer to the touch. Gingerly Elter drew the rolled-up sheet out of the box and flattened it out beneath the jellylamp.
It was a map.
Of course, Elter thought. For navigation on the Shimmer Reef. And to help them avoid the enemy.
He’d never seen a map of the surface, though. For a moment he studied it—the constellation of the twenty or thirty small Garricle islands in the northwest; the wide expanse of ocean labeled only Olimaar: Enemy Waters (so strange, to see his entire world cast off like that, an empty blue space and three words); the uninhabited coral cays dotting the eastern reef; and a single, huge island, far to the east, labeled Opalsand. He had never heard of that place. Looking closer, he saw a smaller word underneath it, in parentheses: Neutral.
An island of that size, neutral in the war. Maybe whoever lived there had food to spare. Maybe they had medicines. Doctors. Ships.
Elter’s heart was suddenly racing. This was something. Something to do. It was reckless and impulsive—but Elter had always been reckless and impulsive. Niko had said it could be done—you could cross the border if you stayed above the surface of the ocean.
Was Niko right? It was worth a try. He’d been right, Elter realized, about more things than Elter had known. The idea was a pulsing nugget of light in his mind: Opalsand. A mission to Opalsand. He grabbed hold of the idea like a drowning Garricler would seize a floating log. His mind felt clear again. He could feel waves of strength surging back through his body.
And just like that, he made the biggest decision of his life.
Elter was skilled with knots; all sea people were. The seaweed arts were taught in school from the age of four. Within minutes he’d loosened the rope from the boulder. Already the raft bobbed a bit, straining upwards. Delicately, Elter grasped the last loop still holding it down and slid it off the rock.
The raft lurched and rose like a waking beast. Elter barely managed to grab the dangling rope before the raft shot up out of reach.
And then they were rising. Up through the darkness, faster than Elter had ever swum before, up so fast his ears popped and popped, his hair thrown back against his head like it used to be during races. The blackness grew thinner, then changed to deepest blue, then bright blue with hints of pink—and Elter realized the sun had risen while he was down there, like magic.
The canyon walls materialized around him. He passed the entrance to the cave system and still he climbed higher, clinging to the rope. Schools of tiny orange fish parted around him, and two passing dolphins squeaked with curiosity. Rays of light sparkled in the shallows, and then splash—the raft and Elter broke the surface.
A brilliant sun touched Elter’s face. He was trembling uncontrollably—laughing and crying at the same time. The shining turquoise ocean spread out all around him. He clambered up onto the raft and lifted the heavy oars. Then he looked east, toward the sun.