I was in one of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi bookstores in Toronto when I stumbled upon Gullstruck Island (also published as The Lost Conspiracy in the States) by Frances Hardinge (Cuckoo Song, The Lie Tree). The cover presents it as children’s lit, and I probably would have skimmed right past it if it hadn’t been for the recommendation note scribbled beside it on the shelf: “Please ignore the cover of this book!”
It promised that, if I ignored the lime-green cover and swirly title font, I would discover thoughtful, beautiful writing, complex themes and characters, and an adventure worthy of readers of all ages. Did I really have a choice? Turns out, Gullstruck Island was just the fantastical adventure I’d been looking to get completely lost in.
The island (a.k.a. Gullstruck) is home to a medley of communities, divided mainly by colonial settlers and the island’s natives, the Lace. It’s also home to assassins who wear the ashes of their victims, fish that impart prophetic visions, and beetles that hum death. And of course, the “Lost.” Celebrated, rare individuals with the ability to lift their souls beyond their bodies and travel, unseen, all over the island.
Magical setting, check! Enter heroine: Hathin. Her sister Arilou is one of Gullstruck’s famous Lost. But Hathin’s role is the most important (and least acknowledged) in her Lace tribe. She must take care of her sister and her villages’ survival by maintaining their greatest secret: That Arilou might not truly be Lost. And, to keep up the charade, she must remain completely unnoticed while doing it. When all of the Island’s Lost, except Arilou, mysteriously die and her village is accused, the sisters are forced to run for their lives, uncovering a deadly conspiracy along the way.
I found Hathin at once relatable and not. That feeling of floating along, unseen and under-appreciated was oh-so-familiar to my own teenage-angst days. Then again, Hathin isn’t your average teenager and I wouldn’t describe her as “angsty.” She lives under a bigger burden than I can fathom. And yet, Hardinge really made me feel it. She is excruciatingly good at putting me snugly into her character’s shoes and then making me walk in them. Until the soles were worn and my feet blistered.
And a big part of that blistering is due to heavier underlying themes. Like the devastating consequences when one community is dismissed as less important than others. Hardinge doesn’t shy away from the horrors or pain that come hand in hand with prejudice. She also didn’t shy away from brilliantly unfolding the reasons we have to respect traditions, cultures, and religions that aren’t necessarily familiar. That we perhaps don’t understand. Hardinge uncovers their inevitable underlying wisdom, and teaches us not only to pay respect but to start paying attention.
It’s why Gullstruck Island is my favorite kind of fiction. It took me completely out of this world for a little enchanting excitement in another, and then it landed me right back on my feet. Still tingling with the magic of it, my heart ached with its realities and I was left chewing on something very real.