Never mind that I’ve only officially read two of her books… I LOVE THE WOMAN!!!!!
Gullstruck Island or The Lost Conspiracy as it’s called in some countries is a story of two sisters, as different from each other as day and night, who have to transverse their entire world to right a wrong done to them after their entire village was killed –murdered really- unjustly under false accusations. At least that’s the story in a sentence or two. In reality, Frances Hardinge creates a wonderful multi-layered tale of adventure, betrayal, revenge, forgiveness, love and family.
The best thing for me with Frances Hardinge is how she’s never condescending. It’s such a small thing, but it goes a really long way. She always operates on the premise that children are intelligent enough to understand the subtle yet powerful nuances of human emotion, human motives and human interaction. It’s not black and white with her; there’s no evil overlord waiting to whisk children away who has to be stopped by a fearless, young, unassuming girl/boy with marvellous talent. Frances Hardinge isn’t shy about her grey areas –hell, she flouts the entire system. There’s a probably a neon pink, luminous green, bright orange, unequivocally polychromatic area, an un-romanticized rendition of life.
The setting for this book was completely remarkable and I’m really not just saying that. Typically I tend to fall in love with books for the characters or the plot or the dialogue but…. for the setting? That’s about as likely as me reading a Game of Thrones book without a death in it. But this setting, this archipelago of nature and marvel and vagary drew me in with its magical landscape and before I knew it, I was at the foot of an exploding volcano watching in immobile wonderment as it roared to life around me.
Usually, when faced with geographically descriptive books, I draw myself into my covers and steel myself for hours of mind-numbing boredom and only manage to get through the books by turning my reading experience into a battle of perseverance. So it was a pleasant surprise to find out that reading the descriptions of Gullstruck Island wasn’t a chore –it was a joy! Frances Hardinge has such a talent for vivid imagery that even when you read her descriptions, they sound like stories. The mountains that cover the entire span of the island aren’t just mountains, they have history, they have legends, they have the ancient power of existentially immovable things. There was the Lord of Fans –the broken-hearted potentate of the land, who was so deeply wounded by his lover’s betrayal that he remembers things front to back. Sorrow –the gelid, unforgiving, conscienceless, mountain princess, who draws people in with her beauty even as she breaks their hearts with her icy nature. Spearhead –the vociferous, saturnine, unwelcoming brother of the Lord of fans; whose dormancy forestalls his dreams of vengeance and retribution. The Crackgem –who reads more like the cantankerous, mercurial, unpredictable and slightly mad Uncle, who is just as likely to pull you into a hug or punch you to the ground.
Because of our familiarity with the geographical history of the place, everything else falls together perfectly. When there’s a slight unexpected breeze, Spearhead is sighing. When the sky is red, The Lord of Fans is mourning something bad that will happen in the near future. When the earth rumbles, Crackgem is laughing. When there’s a landslide, Sorrow has been offended. So you see every crack, every fissure, every nook and cranny, ever blade of grass and drop of dew feels like a small piece in a wider, bigger, more expansive, less knowable vista. There is such great personification in the descriptive nature of this book that the setting feels less like a setting and more like a character.
But now onto the real characters in the book… Hathin –our protagonist- belongs to a tribe called The Lace. The Lace are a friendly, earthy, tightly-knit community, with a precocious understanding of the island and its secrets. They know when a storm will strike before anyone else, they know all the secret underground caves and passes, they know how to navigate around the island as well as the multitudinous creatures that inhabit its soils. They put shells on their teeth and smile all the time but there’s a strong dislike for the Lace among the island folk, because no one really knows the true nature of their smiles. And to be honest, The Lace did freak me out a little. People who smile all the time are creepy.
The Lace were an exception, remaining desperately, stubbornly, painfully distinct. In spite of all the distrust and persecution, the Lace hugged their traditional strangeness, their aloneness, for it was all they had left.
One day though, all of the Lost on the island are killed and people naturally, blame the Lace. The Lost are as indivisible to the island as food and water; they’re the islands communicators, the people who bring them news of the outside world; the people who prepare them for storms and sunshine; the people who know warn them when danger is approaching; they are everything; the very heart and soul of the island and then one day, just like that, they’re gone. Hathin’s village is blamed and because of this blame everyone is murdered apart from Hathin and her sister Arilou –the only Lost left alive. The concept of The Lost, like many of Hardinge’s ideas, is completely unique. Even now, after having read the whole book I’m not entirely sure I know how The Lost work.
Like all Lost, he had been born with his senses loosely tethered to his body, like a hook on a fishing line. He could let them out, then reel them in and remember all the places his mind had visited meanwhile. Most Lost could move their senses independently, like snails’ eyes on stalks. Indeed, a gifted Lost might be feeling the grass under their knees, tasting the peach in your hand, overhearing a conversation in the next village and smelling cooking in the next town, all while watching barracudas dapple and brisk around a shipwreck ten miles out to sea.
After The Lost died and people begin hunting Arilou, the only available option for Hathin is to take Arilou and run for their lives while hoping that along the way, they discover the mystery of the dead Lost.
Hathin, for me, was the icing on the cake, the cherry on the top, the thick slice of exquisitely melted cheese on a piece of amply-topping-filled pizza. Hathin was the kind of protagonist you fall in love with. I didn’t love her the same way I loved Neverfell from A Face Like Glass. It wasn’t this situation where you can’t help but love someone because they’re so sweet and naive. You love Hathin because she is determined; because she’s wispy, and she has a wide mouth and brows that are too far apart and a forgettable face; because she’s constantly overshadowed and constantly forgotten and so still and quiet that you’d think she was timid but in actuality, she has reserves of will that add up to the spirit of one hundred men heading for battle. She is a little scorpion; tiny, quick and deadly. She is smart and innovative and loving. She takes care of Arilou dutifully every day; sometimes she grows tired of her seemingly imbecilic sister, but for the most part, Hathin loves Arilou with all her heart. She stands alone; a human parapet, a palisade of stone, and protects Arilou from the entire world.
It was Tomki who broke the astonished silence.
‘I think Hathin can do it. You know what she’s like when she’s possessed.’
‘When I’m what?’ Hathin stared at him, stupefied.
‘Oh . . . sorry.’ Tomki wrinkled his brow amicably. ‘Not possessed then . . . but, you know, when
that other spirit takes over your body and makes everyone obey you.’
‘Oh, that spirit.’ Therrot’s forehead cleared. ‘The one that took control in the ditch outside
Jealousy, and again in the marketplace when Hathin claimed that woman for the Stockpile, and again when the palace was under attack, and . . .’
‘And when you hit me.’ Tomki smiled at Hathin with a hint of embarrassment. ‘You know, when your voice changes, and your personality changes, and the little worried crinkles in your forehead disappear, and you’re suddenly eight feet tall . . .’
I loved her ultimate character development in this book. When we first meet Hathin, she is so unsure of herself. She hangs on tight to the fact that Arilou is useless and needs her, even if Arilou constant stream of ineffectiveness makes her tetchy. She is completely unaware of her own brilliance and strength and so she makes scaffolding out of Arilou’s need and uses it to shore herself up against all the trials and tribulations she sees before her.
Despite herself, Hathin hesitated briefly before departing. For a moment she wanted to throw herself down next to her mother and ask, ‘What do I do? How can I fool a Lost Inspector? Oh, what do I do?’ But she said nothing. There were invisible walls around those things that could not be discussed. Sometimes Hathin could almost see these walls, shaped from clay and tears, bearing the handprints of generations of Lace. She was too young, too tired and too worried even to think of climbing them. Her mother, wrestling the reeds with her strong, calloused hands, was unreachable.
But by the end of the book, Hathin had found herself. It wasn’t this miraculous change where she realized that she can control the sun and the moon with a wave of her fingers but she’s more confident, more sure of herself, more comfortable in her own skin. Sure she’s still a little bit insecure, but come on people, she’s twelve. But you can definitely see the trappings of uncontainable potential in her.
Hathin was nowhere. Hathin was everywhere. Everything in the deathly landscape had her secretiveness, her careful blandness, her quietness, her stubbornness. Hathin, whispered the windborne dust as it settled on the slopes. Hathin, lisped the ash as it rained upon the plain. >
The theme of revenge in this book was handled spectacularly. Hathin wasn’t your run-off-the-mill I-WILL-BURN-THE-WORLD-AS-IT-HAS-BURNED-ME-NOTHNG-SHALL-SURVIVE type of revenge. Nor was she an ‘Oh No! Killing is bad!! These people have taken everything I love but I’d never hurt them.’ No. Hathin wasn’t bullshitting. She was angry and rightfully so; she had lost her entire village overnight and had no family anymore. She was stranded with her sister who never paid her any mind and the whole world seemed about to implode.
If you’ve got enough anger, then you just go mad. A calm, cool sort of mad. And then it’s all easy.
Hathin was defiant. She wasn’t going to stand for being mistreated. She wasn’t going to go down without a fight. No matter what Hathin kept fighting, kept holding out hope and her fierceness was a wonder to behold.
Hathin’s grip slipped a little, and as the dry stem rasped in her fingers it caught Jimboly’s attention. For a moment the dentist turned her head to look at her. There was hatred in her dark eyes, and madness, but also a hint of incomprehension.
You are dust, her eyes said. You are dirt. You are nothing. Why do you bother surviving? Why are you still alive?
I am the dust in your eyes, was the answer in Hathin’s look. I am the dirt that will bury you. I am the nothingness waiting to open up under your feet. And I can hold on longer than you can.
Hathin opened her mouth and screamed. It was not a scream of pain or fear; it was the explosion of the little black egg in her core which had been waiting to hatch.
But despite all this, Hathin also manages to be compassionate. Frances Hardinge shows us that vengeance is a double-edged sword that hurts all parties involved. She shows us that your anger and your hate will drive you, even as it destroys you. She lets you know that although it is hard, it is possible to forgive.
Another refreshing thing about this book was that Frances Hardinge completely eschewed all the main tropes when crafting her villain. As I said, he wasn’t a hulking, omnipotent beast or a fierce, unstoppable warrior. He wasn’t a vindictive, merciless villain or a power-hungry, voracious criminal. He was merely a misguided man, doing the wrong things, for what he believed were the right reasons.
Camber was middle-aged man of slight stature; a man so at home in the shadows that he became known as a man with no face; no one ever remembered him. He was the kind of man who was always there, even though you had no idea when he arrived. He was that equanimous presence at your right hand that always seems to know what to do. His instructions were always delivered sotto voce; his planning was always done in the shadows. He wasn’t menacing or frightening, he wasn’t the sort of man you’d see and run away, but he was no less deadly because of it.
One thing I have a special liking for in books – I mean, it doesn’t have to be there but if it is, it makes me love the book all the more- and that is, a good last page. I like to read a book’s last page and have it end in a way that will make me reminiscent of the entire story the moment I leave it. I want a book that lets me read its last page smiling; whether I’m smiling through tears or whether it’s a small satisfied smile or whether it’s a big, goofy grin or whether it’s a big hearty laugh… Regardless of the means, I like my books to have that magical quality of a wonderful last page and a good last line. Frances Hardinge’s books have this and it makes the reading experience so much more wholesome. And when I finished this book, I was nearly bursting at the seams with everything it made me feel.
“And then Therrot flung himself backwards on the slope and howled at the hills, for true joy like true pain does not care how it looks or sounds.”