The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Kindle Edition £ 3,22 Paperback £ 5,59
Fiction Review by Enikő Jakab
Published in The Ofi Press issue 49
This slim book, the first novel of young poet and playwright Kiran Millwood Hargrave, targets children and adolescents. The captivating title and the gorgeous cover suggest that the reader is about to embark on a fascinating adventure. The novel depicts the world of Joya, an imaginary island divided into two parts: the land controlled by the mysterious and cruel governor Adori, and the Forbidden Territories where nobody ventures. The names of places and characters have a melodious, dreamy feel to them, and are excellent tools for setting the atmosphere.
Lupe, the wayward daughter of the governor orders one of her classmates to deliver a dragon fruit for her from the orchard the girls are not allowed to enter – with disastrous consequences. Subsequently, Lupe’s best friend, half-orphaned, 13-year old Isabella, the cartographer’s daughter reproaches her severely for her heedless action and selfishness. Their quarrel triggers a series of incidents even more devastating for the inhabitants of the island.
Isabella decides to remedy the situation and save her friend, so she masks herself as a boy and joins the quest lead by Adori and his men. Her only ally is Pablo, the friend of Isabella’s presumably dead brother. The episodes which follow are packed with quick-paced adventures, including the discovery of the long forgotten areas and tribes of the island, fights with demon dogs, getting lost in a labyrinth – and all throughout, the text is charged with metaphors and symbols. The book draws heavily on the mythology of the Canary Islands, including the tales about the demon dogs, the Tibicenas, but it creates its own mythology: both Isabella and Lupe are fascinated by the tale of the brave girl, Arinta, who heroically saved the island – a tale which turns out to be more of a myth, and it is eventually revealed that some of its more terrifying details are true, and may occur again.
Sadly, no matter how rich in metaphor the text aims to be, the magic does not happen.
The action scenes are rushed, and the text fails to become an organic whole. One has the feeling that certain places, characters, episodes or images are placed in their respective positions in order to serve a purpose, but they cannot bring enough life into the story to engage the reader on a deeper level.
The author clearly had a powerful vision of a story she would have liked to tell, but in spite of her beautifully crafted sentences, the book lacks life. Even the scenes which are meant to evoke the most powerful sentiments in the reader (for instance the scene of the ultimate sacrifice) seem rather distant, and they give the reader the cold feeling of disengagement. The main reason for this is that the author could not create characters which are plausible, likeable enough: they remain rather one-dimensional, underdeveloped, and superficial: it is difficult to empathize with them. The writing feels to be in a hurry. The first few pages especially leave the reader out of breath, with a great deal of information, far too many names and facts packed into the sentences, with hints at earlier events which are never properly explained, causing a certain level of frustration in the reader.
The main protagonist is a girl in transition from childhood into adolescence and eventually adulthood, and the quests and trials she undertakes serve as symbols for this transformative mental journey. Yet the writing is not mature enough to capture in an authentic way what it means to be a 13-year old, alone in the world, forced to leave behind childhood with all its comforts, and suddenly facing unspeakable terrors. It is all the more unfortunate because the foundations of the story are extremely promising, and one feels that it could have been an exceptional story, a new gem in children’s literature, with strong and likeable female characters. In its final form, however, the book is indeed somewhat of a disappointment, failing to unleash its potentials.