[Posting the UK cover because it is SO MUCH PRETTIER]
There is an island with volcanoes. Here some few individuals – “the Lost” – are born with a gift for astral projection, by which they are able to cast all five senses out of their bodies to a place of their choosing. It’s a highly useful and sought-after gift – useful because the volcanoes render much of the island impassable to its pre-Industrial inhabitants, so that the most reliable means of communication is to write messages down and leave them in designated “tidings huts” for each town’s resident Lost to peruse with their mind’s eye; sought-after because when a Lost child is born, a great deal of status and a small economic windfall can be expected to accrue to the hometown of this august personage. It is in the context of a struggling fishing village that we meet our protagonist, Hathin, whose sister Arilou is the village’s pride and joy: Their very own Lady Lost. Because Arilou, like many Lost children, manifests discomfort with her physical body she frequently wanders away from it, and at these times it is Hathin’s job as her designated attendant to make sure Arilou doesn’t trip on anything, or cut herself, or leave a line of spittle down her chin. Being one’s sister shadow is a thankless task and a tiring one. But Hathin loves her sister in equal measure as she resents the role of caretaker that has been thrust upon her since birth; she’s only thirteen years old and she’s got the all the village’s hopes riding on her. I say they are riding on her rather than Arilou, because Arilou doesn’t talk she just mumbles incoherently and then Hathin “interprets” for her. At this point the reader begins to suspect that a Lost child being born among the poorest, most reviled tribe on the island is a suspiciously fortuitous circumstance.
So something about this book bothered me from the get-go, and when I figure out what it was, it was a revelation of such magnitude that I had to put the book down to digest it: This book is set in Australia. The setting is a fantasy analogue of New Zealand, to be precise, but the point is that it’s Down Under, and I was obviously operating on the assumption that fantasy worlds – unless they carried clear disclaimers – were all built on a vaguely feudal European template – and yes I can think of plenty that aren’t but have you noticed how the Asian or Middle Eastern influence is the very first thing blurbs or reviewers talk about? Frances Hardinge, on the other hand, does not make a big deal out of the fact that this is a fantasy novel that just happens to be set in the Southern Hemisphere. To this end she uses words like “tribes” and “colonists” sparingly, and even some things that should have been a dead giveaway (like people drilling/setting jewels in their teeth) weren’t, because I hadn’t read the relevant anthropological literature. I am so glad she wrote this book – this fabulous and original young adult novel that clocks in at over 500 pages so not a light easy or quick read, but worth the investment of your time because Hathin. Hathin starts out a mouse of a girl, and by the end she’s really come into her own as an indispensable mediator between the island’s fractious factions. I love her character arc and I love how Hardinge shows us two potential romantic liaisons for Hathin but wisely leaves it at that – potential, in the bud, not actualized – and I love the scene where a minor character tells Hathin, essentially, “I know you’ve been brought up all your life to believe that Arilou is the most important person in the world but listen up that is no longer the case, the people who told you that are dead and it’s your job to revenge them. So now YOU are the most important person in the world, got it?” And I feel like that was a turning point for her, because it shows she can grow without rejecting her upbringing and her values, which is so important because the teenage female protagonist is always chafing against systems of oppression – whether modern, medieval, dystopian – and the most popular way to do this seems to be, become a Badass Woman Warrior. And while we can always use more girls kicking ass and taking names, I think it’s important to engage with political power structures too, and that’s what Hathin (rather reluctantly) does: She learns to play the game. She prevents (what was shaping up to be) a Holocaust. She evacuates a disbelieving populace out of the path of a volcanic explosion, and she gets them to reevaluate their attachment to ancestor worship – a socially injurious practice that was directly responsible for widespread starvation as the island’s fertile land was increasingly taken up by ancestral urns and ashes and the buildings that housed them. I grant that this is likely an unnecessarily detailed account of Hathin’s virtues and accomplishments, but it’s the only way I can communicate how impressed I am with her. I will for sure be keeping an eye out for the rest of Frances Hardinge’s work.