oToads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson (Henry Holt) takes an old French fairy tale (see also this annotated version) and transports it to a fantasy pre-colonial India, drawing on the traditions there in a way similar to how a lot of fantasy draws on "ye olde medieval England" to ground a tale, and creating a sort of fusion retelling. In online interviews, the author explains that she was seeking a reptile-friendly setting, and in notes for the book, she gives a brief overview of how she drew on the historical period and religions, as well as suggestions for further reading. I note this to explain that this reminds me of, say, Silver Phoenix--not everything in the book will map to a present or past thing (attitude, food, location), but Toads and Diamonds undeniably evokes its Indian inspiration.
Tana and Diribani, half-sisters, have fallen on hard times; their father, a jewel merchant, has died, and their (step-)mother hasn't been of much support. They've sold nearly all of their belongings. But, when Diribani goes to fetch water, she meets Nagali-ji*, one of the twelve gods of Diribani's religion, and Nagali-ji gives her the blessing (or burden?) of speaking flowers and jewels--which prettily demonstrates some of Diribani's unspoken thoughts as well. The girls' mother encourages Tana to visit the well too, but Tana's gift is to speak (lucky) toads and snakes--some poisonous, some very, very useful.
From there, the sisters' stories diverge for some while. Diribani attracts royal attention, and must figure out how she can use her gift and how she can resolve her feelings about the prince, who observes a religion that's in power and very different from her own. Tana is in more immediate danger in her home city, and must go on the run, but her travels endanger the man she loves. Both of them will need their gifts to stay alive and to find a way back to one another. I especially appreciated how the separate stories came full circle, and how subtle some of the conflict was.
Even with the adventure aspect, Toads and Diamonds is a quiet read, yet a quick one. It's always nice to see fantasy set in non-Western settings, especially in the YA market.
*I'm away from my copy right now, so I apologize for any misspellings.
I read this book as a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards, which means that I may have received a review copy from the publisher (or not; I own a lot of the books in this category). I read some books nominated for the YA fantasy and science fiction category in 2010 before the nomination period, and may have already reviewed them or declined to make a public review; these books might not have a Cybils post tag. As a first-round judge, I was tasked with helping create a shortlist of books. My personal reviews do not reflect any actions or discussions of the judging committee.