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The Kingdom Over the Sea
Table of Contents
About The Book
My own Yara, if you are reading this, then something terrible has happened, and you are on your own. To return to the city of Zehaira, you must read out the words on the back of this letter… Good luck, my brave girl.
When twelve-year-old Yara’s mother passes away, she leaves behind a letter and a strange set of instructions. Yara must travel from the home she has always known to a place that is not on any map—Zehaira, a world of sorcerers, alchemists and simmering magic. But Zehaira is not the land it used to be. The practice of magic has been outlawed, the Sultan’s alchemists are plotting a sinister scheme—and the answers Yara is searching for seem to be out of reach.
Yara must summon all her courage to discover the truth about her mother’s past and her own identity…and to find her place in this magical new world.
My own Yara,
I hope that you will never need this letter. I want to tell you everything myself—but if you are reading this, then something terrible has happened, and you are on your own. There is a lot I haven’t told you, so much that I don’t know where to begin. But I can tell you how to return to the city you were born in, and whom you can go to for help. I wish I could tell you to get on a plane, and that there will be someone to meet you at the airport—but it will be far more difficult than that, and far more frightening. Yet it is a journey you must make.
To return to the city of Zehaira, get the number 63 bus to Poole Harbor, walk right to the end of Ferry Way, and read out the words on the back of this letter with all the command and confidence that I know you have. Persuade whoever arrives to take you with them—you must make them know that you will not take no for an answer. Pack food and warm clothes and a waterproof coat. When you arrive at your destination, ask for the sorceress Leyla Khatoun, at the third-to-last house on Istehar Way, in the Sorcerers’ Quarter. I know that she will give you the help that I cannot.
I love you so, so much—more than the moon, more than the stars, more than my own heart.
Good luck, my brave girl.
Yara Sulimayah’s eyes moved over the swooping curves of her mother’s handwriting for a second time, the letter clutched so tightly in her hands that the paper was taut, her knuckles pale. Her dark fringe fell over her eyes, and she brushed it away as though it had caused her personal offense. She was reading the letter fifty meters above the ground, although this was by no great feat of magic or acrobatics. Rather, she had lived on the sixth floor of a tower block since she had come to England as a baby and had not strayed far from it in the twelve years that had followed.
Yara began her mum’s letter for a third time, each word more confusing to her than the last. She lingered on one: “sorceress,” and her heart began to pick up pace in her chest.
She turned, stashing the letter in her pocket. Stephanie, her social worker, was standing at the door; her palm pressed against the wallpaper in a way that would have made Mama seethe, her eyes warm with concern behind her glasses. “Find anything?”
Yara steadied herself. “Nothing, really. Just her passport and stuff.”
“Ah, well. Is there anything else of your mum’s that you want? Maybe a shawl?”
As she spoke, Stephanie’s gaze fell to the open drawer where her mother had kept her headscarves, each neatly folded into squares. Yara got to her feet and ran her hand over smooth silk, chiffon, and crepe.
“That one’s pretty.” Stephanie came farther into the room, her hand hovering above Yara’s back. She pointed to a yard of deep green material, pink and red flowers embroidered in a close print.
Yara shook her head. “She never wore that one. She was saving it for a special occasion.”
Her hand settled on a shawl of faded blue, the gold embroidery like tiny, fraying stars. When she was little, her mother used to take it off and spread it on the table, pretending that Yara’s dolls were traveling through the night sky. Picking it up from the drawer, Yara brought the headscarf to her face, inhaling the scent of castor oil and rose water that clung to the fabric.
It had been almost a fortnight since her mother had not returned from her shift. Since Stephanie had met her at the school gates and explained that there had been an accident on the main road. Since she had taken Yara to a foster family, and then to a funeral. Now she had brought her here, home; to pack up her things properly. To say goodbye.
Almost a fortnight. The days seemed to have blended into one terrible moment, as though she had missed a step and was still falling, her stomach still plummeting. She had never spent this long without her mother. Fresh tears welled in her eyes.
“Oh, sweetheart.” Stephanie squeezed her shoulder. “I know.”
Yara stiffened beneath her touch, dropping the headscarf back in the drawer and blinking furiously. She was small for twelve, but she made up for it with eyes that were dark and fierce, and thick eyebrows that would knit together stormily. The full force of her glower would normally stop adults in their tracks—but Stephanie, looking around the flat, did not seem fazed.
“You’re sure there isn’t anywhere else your mum kept things?”
“No. The top drawer was her last hiding place.”
“And nothing about any family at all—no postcards, no photographs?”
Mama’s letter burned hot in her pocket. Her words: It is a journey you must make.
“Mama always said there was no one else. That it was just the two of us.” She picked up her school bag, interjecting before her social worker could say anything else. “So everything’s packed?”
“All your things are, yes. The removal crew is coming for the furniture this evening.” Stephanie checked her phone. “Right, it’s eight o’clock; we’d best be off. Are you sure you want to go to school? I’m sure if we called the office and explained—”
“Actually,” Yara said slowly, “could I have bit of time by myself?” Seeing her social worker’s hesitation, she attempted a desolate look. “I… I need to say goodbye.”
Stephanie’s expression softened. She gave Yara’s shoulder another squeeze. “Of course. I know it’s difficult—but the Browns will look after you, I promise.”
Yara nodded, and now there really was a lump in her throat. She blinked and swallowed around it furiously.
Stephanie checked her phone again. “All right, then. I’ll be outside.”
Yara moved to the windowsill, looking out at the housing complex to hide her face from her social worker. She waited, pretending to be lost in thought as she heard Stephanie gather her handbag and coat, stop to look at Yara in the empty flat one more time, and then step out into the hallway, closing the door behind her.
Yara moved immediately. She pulled the letter from her pocket, reading her mother’s words to herself again. Sorceresses, mysterious summonses that had to be read right by the sea—if it hadn’t sounded so unmistakably like her mum, right down to the instruction not to take no for an answer, she might have thought the letter had been written by a stranger. Perhaps it was some kind of game, like the treasure maps Mama had made for their adventures when Yara was much smaller. Perhaps she had forgotten about it, and put it away with their documents by mistake.
Only she couldn’t think of anything less like her mum, with her eagle eyes and knack for precision, who knew instantly when Yara had forgotten to put her homework on the dresser or hadn’t folded her laundry properly.
Looking up, Yara scanned their living room, hoping for something that might provide a window into her mum’s mind. But each thing she saw—the biscuit tin where Mama kept her sewing kit, the tea caddy where she kept her secret stash of custard creams, the hospital scrubs carefully hung up on a peg—only seemed to emphasize how ordinary Mama had been.
Anyway, what was the alternative? That Mama was serious, and genuinely expected her to get the bus to Poole Harbor and voyage to a country using only words and determination? That there were such people as sorceresses, and that she needed one’s help? It obviously wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true.
Except that Mama had always been vague about where they were from. It said Iraq on their documents, but her mum had explained that she hadn’t known exactly where they had lived before, and had to hazard a guess as to which country it was. Yara had been desperate to know, had pleaded and argued and sulked for the story of their journey to the UK; but every time she asked, Mama’s voice would get tighter, and pain would furrow her face.
I’ll tell you when you’re older. At first it had been a promise. More recently it had sounded like a plea for more time. But that was time they would never have now.
Yara looked down at where Mama had underlined her instructions so vigorously that the pen had almost gone through the paper, and the dull ache of her mother’s absence flared into sharp pain once more. She bit her lip, hard. Whatever reason Mama had for talking about magic and sorceresses, this had been her attempt to give Yara some answers to the questions that had been burning inside her for years. She couldn’t throw that away, not if there was the slimmest, smallest chance she might find something out.
“Right,” she said aloud, steeling herself for the absurdity of what she was about to do next. “I suppose I had better get packing.”
She didn’t have long. If she really was going to follow Mama’s instructions, she needed to pack and be well away from the flat by the time Stephanie realized she was missing. Another twelve-year-old might have been daunted by the task, but Yara, who had been helping organize protest campaigns since she was old enough to understand that there were people in the world who wanted to shut down libraries, got to work.
She checked the letter again: Pack food and warm clothes and a waterproof coat. She was in her school sweater and trousers, and most of her regular clothes were in a suitcase at her temporary foster home. Only her salwar qamis were left in the flat—and not even the two pretty ones she had chosen to take with her, but the plain ones her mum had insisted on buying the fabric for, ignoring Yara’s complaints. She stuffed them into her school bag and pulled on her blue raincoat. There wasn’t much food about, but Yara knew she wouldn’t have time for a supermarket trip. She opened the freezer, rummaging until she found the sambusak she had made with Mama before the accident. There was only one of the little pastries left, but it would have to do.
What else? Wash things, a book called The History of the World that Mama had given her for her birthday and that she had still not read. A photo of her mum, and of her and a friend holding a poster together outside the library. As she looked at their twin smiles, Yara’s breath hitched in her throat. Rehema had tried to reach out to her over a week ago, but, lost in a haze of grief, Yara had found herself unable to reply to her messages. She wondered how she would explain what she was doing to her friend if she were here.
There didn’t seem much point in packing anything else apart from a pocket atlas, which she took largely as a reminder to herself that places reachable only by magical summons did not exist. Then, as she was poised to leave, she had a change of heart. Running back, she picked up her mother’s blue headscarf and wound it round her neck.
Then there was nothing left to do, nothing except say goodbye to the flat she had lived in since she was barely a month old.
“Yara?” Stephanie’s voice sounded through the mail slot. She was out of time.
“Just two more minutes,” she called back, and looked around. With sudden clarity she realized that she was standing in an empty place, with walls where Mama had measured her height and pinned up her essays, and a kitchen where Yara had sat on the counter, peeling vegetables and talking to Mama about the latest injustice she had discovered in the world. It was already a place where they had once been.
“Goodbye,” Yara said softly, as though louder tones would disturb what little trace of them was left. As quietly as she could, she slipped into the kitchen, out through the back door, and down the iron steps of the fire escape.
Why We Love It
“Just as Yara is swept across a mystical sea to Zehaira, author Zohra Nabi will transport you to a magical new world with her unforgettable voice and gorgeous descriptive powers. The brave, indomitable Yara will capture your heart from the first page, and that’s not even to mention the incredible side characters like Leyla, the no-nonsense sorceress with mysterious connections to Yara’s past; Rafi, the young sorcerer-in-training who hates magic; and Ajal, the gloomy jinn who wants you to know that he does not—does not—care about Yara and is just sticking around out of a sense of duty. So when you’re ready for it, Zehaira is here waiting for you!”
—Sarah M., Senior Editor, on The Kingdom over the Sea
- Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (June 6, 2023)
- Length: 336 pages
- ISBN13: 9781665931083
- Ages: 8 - 12
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Raves and Reviews
Cryptic directions from her mother lead Yara Sulimayah from England to a magical world.
Upon her death, Yara’s mother leaves her instructions for reaching another world—the city of Zehaira, where she’ll find the sorceress Leyla Khatoun. Although skeptical, Yara’s also desperate to learn more about her and her mother’s past (on paper, they’re from Iraq). She finds an alternate world where the Sultan has sided with the alchemists, banning magic and forcing the sorcerers into hiding through a brutal Inquisition. On her journey to find Leyla, Yara overhears evidence of a dangerous plot to wipe out sorcerers for good. But Leyla, rather than helping her as her mother promised, is busy keeping a secret sorcerer settlement running and is uninterested in the city sorcerers’ woes. Yara must crack through Leyla’s self-protective mechanisms and convince her of the existential threat coming their way, all the while trying to get Leyla to spill the secrets Yara’s mother kept. That Yara ends up having (unconventional) magic of her own might be expected, but by then readers will have already formed an attachment to the determined, bighearted hero. The setting—an Arab-coded world that simmers with magic—is richly described and populated by complex people and jinn. The ending wraps the action up a bit abruptly but looks forward to more dangers and adventures in the sequel.
A debut that marks the author as an exciting storyteller to watch. (Fantasy. 8-14)
– Kirkus, 05/01/2023
"Enchanting, immersive and beautifully imagined. Once I’d finished, I couldn’t stop dreaming of this magnificent magical world."
– A.F. Steadman, author of the New York Times bestselling Skandar and the Unicorn Thief
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- Book Cover Image (jpg): The Kingdom Over the Sea Hardcover 9781665931083
- Author Photo (jpg): Zohra Nabi Photograph (c) Henry Harrison(0.1 MB)
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