Kate’s Books: Gullstruck Island

gullstruck island

Welcome to a new section on this blog, uncreatively titled Kate’s Books because I couldn’t think of anything witty enough. Here I’ll be reviewing books that have left a particularly strong impression on me. They’ll mostly be positive posts, because if I end up not liking a book, usually I can’t muster the strength to finish it. Occasionally, however, I come across a book so unbelievably bad I just have to read it to the end out of sheer masochism. Such as Fifty Shades of Gray.

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The plot:

Gullstruck Island, or The Lost Conspiracy as it’s known in the U.S., is a children’s fantasy written by Frances Hardinge, but don’t think this will be a light read. This isn’t a whimsical fairy tale, pretty but ultimately forgettable. Gullstruck Island is a triple-whammy of complex characters, a delightfully woven plot, and simple but flowing prose.

The story revolves around Hathin, a young girl who lives in a village by the sea. She’s a member of an ancient tribe called the Lace, a persecuted people distrusted and disliked by the rest of the residents of the titular Gullstruck Island. (Sidenote: In an author’s note, Hardinge emphasizes that she did not mean for the Lace to be an allusion to any real life indigenous tribe, but the way that the Lace are treated is so despicable, and the way that others rationalize their treatment of them so familiar, that you can’t help but draw parallels.)

Hathin is the devoted caretaker to her sister Arilou, who is a Lost. Every so often, children are born to families on the island with the ability to separate their senses from their bodies and travel, disembodied, around the island, deep into the sea, and up into the sky. The Lost are treated with respect, as their great powers allow them to act as messengers, root out criminals, see oncoming storms before they hit, and a wide range of other services for the inhabitants of Gullstruck Island.

This is in sharp contrast to the why the Lace tribe is treated. Suspicion and fear of the Lace, along with contempt for the way they maintain old traditions and legends, wars with the usual high esteem accorded the Lost. The Lace tribe latch onto Arilou as their lifeline, and Hathin is resigned to the task of serving and caring for her acclaimed and admired sister for the rest of her life.

This changes when tragedy strikes. Arilou’s fellow Lost are being systematically murdered, and the island turns on the Lace as a convenient scapegoat. Hathin and Arilou flee for their lives, but they’re soon swept up in a dangerous conspiracy that engulfs the whole island and makes Hathin question everything she’s ever known.

What I loved:

  • Frances Hardinge is an amazing writer. Her prose is simple and straightforward, but the way it flows just captures your imagination. Particular favorites are her descriptions of the island – I could practically feel the jungle’s oppressive heat, hear the waves crashing on the rocks near the Lace village, see the smoke pouring forth from the volcanoes’ craters.
  • The world-building is flawless. Hardinge seamlessly entwines the history of Gullstruck Island with the rest of the story. We learn of the Lace’s old traditions and legends, their reverence of the volcanoes on the island, and the dark history behind their oppression and subjugation. Not to mention we also hear the myths of the island themselves, the tales of two volcanoes fighting over a third, and the deep gouge the loser leaves in the land when he flees. It almost makes you wonder if Hardinge studied and then blended together stories of ancient civilizations, religions, folklore, and the history of colonial conflict. It’s nothing short of masterful.
  • The characters are complex and well-rounded. Hathin herself is a wonder – the sidekick, the unimportant sister, surplus to requirements, suddenly thrust into the limelight. We also have a bumbling but well-meaning bureaucrat who finds himself an unlikely ally of the Lost, a group of tattooed Lace assassins who help Hathin with her quest, a “crowdwitch” with an unraveling soul who has the all-too-real ability to manipulate the tide of a mob. You understand each major character – their hopes, fears, and motivations. There’s nothing two-dimensional or cookie-cutter about them at all.
  • I’m very careful with fantasy books with female protagonists. Even when written by female authors, they can fall prey to those weird slightly misogynistic tendencies that aren’t full-on sexism, but are just enough to make you feel icky – the tough girl taunting her opponent by saying he “hits like a girl”, or someone professes admiration for her fighting skills and she goes “that’s what happens when you have four older brothers”, for example. There’s none of that here. Hathin is a wonderful character, motivated solely by the urge to keep her sister safe and then, later on, discovering her own place in the world. She holds her own in the wilderness, takes no nonsense from anyone, and does not compromise her morals. In short, a girl after my own heart.

What I didn’t particularly care for:

  • If there’s one complaint I have about this book (and really, it’s not so much a complaint as it is an observation, because I certainly didn’t mind, but some people might, so here it is), it’s that Hardinge can’t seem to take a breath. The story weaves in and out, twists left and right, and practically does loop-de-loops without pausing to see if the reader has caught up. So much happens in the span of a few pages that you’ll probably end up missing something important if you skim.

Verdict:

5/5. Two of my favorite experiences in the world are discovering a really good book no one else seems to know about, and stumbling on a children’s book that seems too deep to be a children’s book. Gullstruck Island readily delivered on both.

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