Monday, 11 July 2016

'The Girl of Ink and Stars' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Forgot to take pics before returning to the library, found on Pinterest.

'They say the day the Governor arrived, the ravens did too. All the smaller birds flew backwards into the sea, and that is why there are no songbirds on Joya.'
I don't know about you, but the image of an island ruled by a mysterious Governor (รก la the Governor from The Walking Dead) infested with massive, menacing ravens? That sounds like a desolate and ruined place.
I was hooked by this first sentence: it's particularly powerful for a debut novel.

Isabella lives with her father on the island of Joya.
Their village, Gromera, was isolated from the rest of the island by the Governor: as soon as he arrived he closed Gromera's ports and hung alarm bells throughout the forest bordering the village, so he would know if anyone from the Forbidden Territories on the other side of the island tried to approach. Creating laws such as no swimming - in case villagers tried to escape - he banishes people who break his rules to the other side of the forest, where they're never seen again.
One morning, Isabella is on her way to meet Lupe - her best friend, and the Governor's daughter - when she gets stopped by the mother of one of her other friends. It turns out Cata has gone missing, and when Isabella asks Lupe about it she confesses that she ordered Cata to pick dragonfruit from the forbidden orchard for her. Isabella is certain that the Governor must have caught Cata and locked her in prison, but the reality is even worse: Cata's body is found in the orchard, surrounded by claw marks.
The villagers are distraught when the Governor makes no attempt to find the killer, merely enforcing a curfew. Isabella takes her anger out on Lupe, calling her rotten and berating her for having such a cowardly father. This pushes Lupe to extremes, and she steals a horse and rides into the forest, attempting to reach the Forbidden Territories and find the person who could have murdered Cata. The Governor quickly assembles a search party to help find his daughter and Isabella manages to scheme her way into the group, trying to ease her guilt for causing Lupe to do such a thing. But when they enter the Forbidden Territories, strange and terrifying things begin to happen, and the certainty that they will find Lupe quickly diminishes.
Could a lone fourteen-year-old really have survived in such a terrifying and dangerous environment?
Told in three parts to correspond with three settings (The Isle of Joya, the Forbidden Territories and the Labyrinth - not including the brief epilogue set a year later, which is told Somewhere on the Western Sea) 'The Girl of Ink and Stars' is very fast read, comparable to plays due to the three act nature of its narrative.
Each of the new settings gets its own beautifully illustrated map, which is perfect because Isabella and her father are both cartographers: you can genuinely imagine them creating the wonderous images on the page. It's brilliant to see such an under-appreciated art form getting the spotlight - I've never read about cartography before, and to encounter it in YA is even more surprising! The scenery is also evocatively described by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who has a talent for writing magical and beautiful descriptions of settings - the images come alive in your head and suck you in to the story, and you have to finish it in one sitting because you won't be able to focus on anything else while you're wondering how it's going to finish.

'The Girl of Ink and Stars' is intellectually stimulating because it feels like a retelling, but it's a retelling of an original tale: the story of Arinta and Yote.
"It's not a story. It's a myth."
"What's the difference?"
"A myth is something that happened so long ago people like to pretend it's not real, even when it is." 
It is a bit disconcerting, because you have to get your head around the original story and then straight away it's being spun on its head: it's not as easy as reading a retelling of a well-known fairy tale like Cinderella or Snow White. The atmosphere of that classic tale is still there, though, and I'll be very surprised if this book doesn't take on a life of its own and become a classic in the coming years.
It makes it harder to enjoy, though: particularly when you consider the fact that it's just over two hundred pages.
To tell two stories effectively in that amount of time is a feat, and it does feel like some bits are missing and some pieces are just assumed. The actual setting of the story isn't divulged, but is mentioned in relation to places like Amrica and Afrik, and the history of the island and the world that it's placed in - similar to ours, but obviously different - isn't cleared up.
There's also quite a large ensemble of characters, particularly the group that the Governor gets together to help find Lupe, and they're basically cookie cutter characters of the stereotypical military man. While Isabella and Lupe stand out from the crowd, and the Governor is a brilliant portrayal of a dictator driven to desperation, the other characters fade into the background.
Because this is middle grade fantasy, there was no romance - something I was eternally grateful for! It focuses beautifully on friendship and family, important stories that need telling but that are so often overlooked. However, I think the fact that it was middle grade is a big part of the reason that it seems so simplistic and under-explained: it would have been nice to get this as a young adult novel, because it might have fleshed things out more thoroughly.

I was very, very close to giving this book five stars, but it would have primarily been for the design of the book, not for the story itself. The team who created this beauty need a huge round of applause - I've never seen a book illustrated on every single page, but the attention to detail and the care that went into this release is brilliant.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave has a heck of a lot of potential as an author, and for this to be a debut novel is jaw-dropping. The history behind the world is lacking, but the beautiful flow of language is stunning and Kiran certainly knows how to tell a story. Hopefully her next release will have a more fleshed out background.
I'm also crossing my fingers that Kiran will continue on in the world of standalone novels, because there aren't many authors who can write them this well. Whereas some novels feel open-ended and unfinished, 'The Girl of Ink and Stars' has a brilliant ending that feels natural - the entire story has been told (even if the background story wasn't!).

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