Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Review of The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
This is one of those books that is so rich in detail, so brimming with fascinating characters and convoluted plot lines, that it is difficult to do it justice when summarizing it.
Therefore, here is the most cursory of plot descriptions. The island of Gullstruck, populated by a breathtaking variety of tribes, was colonized hundreds of years ago by a "civilized" culture from the mainland. One tribe, the Lace, has been marginalized for almost that long after cultural misunderstandings led to a bloody pogrom. On Gullstruck, a few children are born with the ability to send their 5 senses beyond their bodies and out into the world - they are called the Lost and are trained to be a sort of communications network for the island. Young Hathin, a Lace girl, is the caretaker and interpreter for her 13-year-old sister Arilou, a Lost child - except Arilou has never once made herself understood and so Hathin and the whole village suspect she is merely an imbecile and not Lost at all. But they keep up the deception even when a Lost inspector comes to test Arilou - and when he and all the rest of the Lost on the island suddenly and mysteriously die, it is blamed on the Lost and Hathin and Arilou must flee. However, they find that all over the island, the Lost are being treated as scapegoats and sent to labor camps.
Readers will note many parallels to the colonization of native people in Africa and South America, to the Holocaust, and to any situation in which cultures clash. The tribes of Gullstruck have elements of Aztec and Mayan cultures, of certain Asian cultures, and so on - but they are very much original creations and absolutely unique. The Lace, for example, all have semi-precious stones and coral and shells embedded in their teeth, and they all smile all the time, whether they are happy or not. In fact, in stressful times their smiles are wider and more rigid than ever, causing alarm and disquiet in the colonists who fear them. They all have names that sound literally like natural occurrences - Hathin's name sounds like dust settling - so that they will be forgotten by the volcano gods that rule their island.
This kind of detail creates a rich and multi-layered world that comes fully alive, and when Hathin and Arilou move beyond their seaside village and begin to interact with their allies and enemies, the story begins to soar. Hathin is one of those small, meek, young protagonists who is forced by circumstances to become the amazing person she was meant to be; she is utterly humble and completely captivating, even though she herself feels she is just muddling through as best she can. All characters, from the "good" ones to the truly creepy ones, are complicated, unpredictable, and fascinating. They are also quite believable - their motivations are understandable even when reprehensible.
I could go on and on, but I think I'll stop there. This is one of those books that I wanted never to end. Absolutely recommended for motivated readers ages 10 to 15.