I think that as adult reviewers of books for children and teens we have a duty to separate ourselves from our material and give our books an impartial eye, one and all. As a reviewer, I don’t know how wise it is for me to get as excited as a ten-year-old when the newest book from a favorite children’s author comes out. If I adopt a fangirl mindset then how impartial a reviewer can I be? I have a requirement, nay, a duty to not enjoy a book too much when I read it. I must remain calm and cool and collected at all times, no matter how thrilling the story or intriguing the characters.
Dost thou think the children’s book reviewer doth protest too much?
She doth indeed because at 576 pages I had just one thought upon finishing Frances Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy: It’s already ended? As I see it, 576 pages somehow manages, in spite of all the odds, to be too short. You couldn’t cut a scene, a character, or a word in this book for the 10 and up set without upsetting the flow. Filled with sentient volcanoes, gem-studded teeth, villains, heroes, revenge, love, and the world’s most frightening dentist, this is a book to rival The Princess Bride in scope, adventure, and excitement. It’s Hardinge’s magnum opus. One that I dearly hope both kids and adults enjoy in equal measure.
Gullstruck Island. Colonized by the Cavalcaste more than two centuries ago. Populated by various tribes, amongst them the always smiling Lace. Home of humans known as “the Lost” who are capable of allowing their senses to leave their bodies “like a hook on a fishing line”, which gives them the ability to roam the island as messengers and spies. Now, for the first time, a Lost has been discovered amongst the Lace, and not the Cavalcaste. But when a Lost inspector and his aide come to test her, it starts a chain reaction no one could anticipate. The Lost inspector dies while there, and his aide disappears. So Hathin, a girl born and raised to be the invisible helper to her impossible sister, finds the weight of the world resting on his slim shoulders. Someone has it in for the Lace, and it’s up to Hathin to find help, escape and outwit her enemies, appease the island’s volcanoes, and uncover a conspiracy before everything and everyone she loves is gone.
I’ve delayed writing this review for a time because I have been hoping that the words to describe this book would march faithfully from my brain into my typing fingertips without hemming and hawing much. This has not happened. So I’m forced to try to explain to you what’s going on here, but the only way to do it is to lump it all together in one big run-on sentence. Deep breath now. Hardinge has written the ultimate metaphor for colonization, taking into account the prejudices and miscommunications inherent in the minds of both the colonizers and the colonized, the “savagery”, the abuse of natives, and even the rebel factions of native people and their need for revenge against various oppressions. Phew! But wait. There’s more. All this is honed into a narrative that is subtle with its messages. You aren’t thumped over the head with the didactic stick with this book. Instead the story seems to seep into your skin, undetected and by this strange osmosis you get the point.
The colonization aspects of the story are meticulously worked out. You get the impression that you could ask Hardinge anything about this island and she would have an answer for you right at hand. It’s the kind of feeling I only get once in a while. J.K. Rowling could do it. So could Tolkien. D.M. Cornish could do it with his Monster Blood Tattoo titles. And now Hardinge has that ability as well. She’s able to discuss an island where the settlers’ original homeland is used to dealing with ice and snow, so their laws have no bearing on the problems faced in this tropical isle. “Port Suddenwind’s edicts could cope with thieves who stole sledges or furs but not those who ran off with jade or coconut rum. They could cope with murderers who tricked victims onto thin ice but not those who boiled jellyfish pulp to make poisons.” Hardinge also deals eloquently with prejudices. At one point a Cavalcaste makes a joke about little Hathin carrying one of them away as a sacrifice. “It was a joke, but centuries of distrust and fear lay behind it.”
The language here was the real draw for me. I’ve always been a sucker for a well-turned Hardinge verse. In this book you encounter lines like “As Hathin ran forward, she could feel the stares crystallize on her skin like salt.” Or how about, “And then Therrot flung himself backward on the slope and howled at the hills, for true joy like true pain does not care how it looks or sounds.” Hardinge also describes this world thoroughly. So potent was the landscape in my mind that I kept flipping to the front of the book, convinced that I’d find a map there. I must have done this about four times, forgetting after each glance that there was no such map to be found. Something about the writing convinced me that I could actually see the island. But when I went back to check, there was never anything there.
In the past I’ve liked also Hardinge’s characters. I’ve been intrigued by their tales and I’ve enjoyed watching them learn and grow. But for the first time this author has created people that I not just believed in, but wanted desperately to succeed. Hathin was born to be invisible in every possible way. Yet in the course of her struggle she shows uncommon strength and ends up a highly visible human being, not to mention one I wouldn’t want to tangle with. It’s the ultimate fantasy for every bookish girl who picks up this novel. From existing in the shadow of your more important sister, to legend. But it wasn’t just Hathin. I really cared about most of the characters in this book. I liked the roving dentist Jimboly until her true psychosis came to light (and how much more creepy is it to have a bad guy with a good sense of humor and a fine laugh?). I particularly liked the Cavalcaste character of Prox. I liked him so much that when he disappeared in the narrative at one point I found myself desperately paging through future parts of the book to find him again. I won’t tell you if I succeeded.
There’s a lot of action as well. I guess that’s sort of a given when a fair number of your characters are volcanoes. Still, between the Lost flying, villages getting slaughtered, the fights, the chaos, and the greed, you never really know what Hardinge is going to pull next. One villain in the tale is an otherworldly Ashwalker, a man who turns his victims into ashes so that he can take their souls and turn them into his protective clothes. The escape scenes from him are nail biting, edge-of-the-seat sequences. Probably my favorite, and weirdest, moment in the book is straight out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It involves one character holding a knife to a girl’s throat, while another character threatens a bird, and a third is close to smashing a . . . lobster. It’s ridiculous, but it works. You’ll see.
To be fair, I enjoyed Hardinge’s previous novels published here in America, Fly By Night and Well Witched very much. But I could see how kids wouldn’t always go for them. Fly By Night was a strange little creature, creating its own perfect little world within a kind of timeslip pseudo-Dickensian setting. It was steampunk without the punk. An acquired taste. Well Witched was geared to be a little more mainstream, but even so it felt like Hardinge was holding herself back. Holding herself back for what? For this epic storyline, it seems. I have no qualms about saying that The Lost Conspiracy is this woman’s best book yet. Somehow, by letting her freak flag fly, Hardinge has gone beyond her other two books and created something that will actually be more accessible than either the previous volumes were. She’s at her best when she’s in the grips of her own particular form of madness. Sure, kids will have to clarify early on who the colonizers are and who the colonized be, but that’s explained clearly enough. What they will find when they read this is that this is a world like nothing they’ve ever encountered before and that they’ll never want to leave. Beloved.
On shelves September 1st.
First Lines: "It was a burnished, cloudless day with a tug-of-war wind, a fine day for flying.And so Raglan Skein left his body neatly laid out on his bed, its breath as slow as sea swell, and took to the sky.”
Notes on the Cover: I like it. I like it a lot. Hardinge has clarified that the races on Gullstruck Island are varied and mixed. Hathin’s isn’t necessarily specified, but I do know that if a white girl was standing staring at me from this jacket I would less than enthused to see her. This Hathin, however, is perfect. Slight. Small. You can see how she could pass for a boy. You can see how, if you met her alone, you might not notice her at all. Of course, she isn’t really smiling here. In the book the Lace are always smiling at all times. You could make the argument that perhaps this is a scene where Hathin is attempting to hide her race, but I’m not sure if that’s really the case. It’s definitely one of the moments when she has the flickerbird with her and intends to use it. Still, I think a smile would have worked, but I’m not going to complain. The artist, for the record, is one Greg Swearingen who has done some of the best 2009 covers I’ve seen. I particularly enjoyed his Candle Man, Jemma Hartman: Camper Extraordinaire, and Operation Redwood (amongst many others).
Original Title: Gullstruck Island is how it’s known in the U.K. Frankly I think we outdid them both in terms of the title and the cover.
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Misc: Here’s the original cover as it appeared in England.