ISABEL AND SIOFRA: THE HEIST OF 2098 is refreshing in many ways. The title characters, Isabel and Siofra, are two fifth-grade girls with well-drawn personalities, including realistic talents and flaws. Their chief motivation isn’t romance or popularity, but a shared love of adventure and mystery solving. While their curiosity gets them into a bit of trouble, the narrative never punishes them for their desire to make sense of the world around them, instead choosing to share in their sense of fun. For example, Isabel keeps her spirits up throughout the story by keeping a running tally of all the cheesy puns she makes, and the book concludes with a pun counter, as if the narrator is in on the joke. The whimsical tone is helped along by the expressive drawings of S. Red Amparo and OshRED Art.
While the narrative rightly focuses on the young heroines, the adult characters, particularly the two fifth-grade teachers Mr. Saladin and Ms. Sidos, are given complex motivations and the suggestion of lives that extend outside of the classroom. This might be because, as he mentions in the acknowledgement section, the author, Blackwall, is a teacher himself, and it shows. He has a good grasp of how developing brains learn, and does a good job of using classroom scenes to establish character and theme.
The unique characters and setting make me wish Blackwall had spent a bit more time editing the writing itself. There are more than a few distracting typos. For example, on page 72, during what should be an emotional moment, the two friends sit “down on the closets couch” to comfort each other. In addition, some of the physical descriptions seem more appropriate for a paperback romance than a child-centric adventure. Take the description, on page 68, of one of Isabel’s mothers: “Black, wavy hair cascaded down onto smooth bronze skin.”
Finally, while the characters do have well-drawn personalities, they relate to their countries of origin in cliched ways. The Irish Siofra both river dances and calls everyone lass or lad. Isabel is part Russian and knows the Cossack dance. The text is too good-natured for this to read as offensive, but it does seem like a missed opportunity for world-building. Have national cliches really not changed in over a century, especially after a third world war and the formation of a single-Earth government? Or have countries doubled-down on their best-known traditions as a way to retain identity in this context?
The ending sets ISABEL AND SIOFRA: THE HEIST OF 2098 up for a higher-stakes sequel, so Blackwall has a chance to address some of these issues, and I hope he does, because Isabel and Siofra are two characters I would gladly follow through a series of mystery-solving adventures.
~Olivia Rosane for IndieReader