Review – The Girl of Ink & Stars – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I recently won a copy of ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave on Girls Heart Books for my eldest. She has a high reading age, which can be problematic in that some books that are suitable for her reading age are not always suitable for her biological age of nine. The upshot of this is that I often read all her books first to check them. This also counts as research for my own writing of course, so it’s a win-win situation. We’re not too happy for her to be reading about relationships that go beyond a ‘blossoming’ and first kiss stage yet. She’s still at a wonderful stage where she finds that disgusting and embarrassing, so she will police that herself. We also don’t want her exploring themes of self-harm, drug use and other gritty subjects yet either.

The 8-12 age group of children’s fiction, also known as Middle Grade, a term the UK has borrowed from the US, tends to be perfect for her. Relationships don’t usually get past a hint-of-slightly-more-than-good-friends and possible first kiss stage. Gritty subjects tend to be watered down and aimed at the older readers from the group or avoided altogether. There are, however, adventures a-plenty, amazing fantasy worlds, strong characters, twisting plot lines and challenging vocabulary. I still read most of the 8-12 books that we buy for her to check them for their scariness though. Some of the books at the top end of this age group are pretty scary and we don’t want her awake with nightmares. The Michelle Harrison books are as scary as we’re happy with. She loves them. If I’m being perfectly honest, I was a little concerned by how scary they are at first, but she coped well with them, so they became our benchmark.

On to ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’. For a start it is a beautiful looking book and a lot of time and consideration has clearly gone into the book’s design. The cover art is beautiful and all the pages are marked with cartography images too. The story follows Isabella, daughter of a cartographer, and wastes no time getting straight into the story. We soon learn that Isabella and her father live on the island of Joya and that their island has been divided in two by the Governor. Isabella’s mother and twin brother have died of an illness a few years previously. Their community, Gromera, is separated from the rest of the island and no one is allowed to leave. The ports are closed and a forest stretches across the island, acting as a border. The Governor rules like a dictator, taking the animals of those who disobey or disagree with him as punishment, and sending dissenters to the ‘Dedalo’, an underground prison.

Isabella’s father is a cartographer, who once travelled far and wide to map the world. He is frustrated by his inability to finish his maps, since he cannot leave to explore the world under Governor Adori’s rule. Isabella is enchanted by the beautiful maps her father makes. I was enchanted too, reading the beautiful descriptions of deep blue and silver inks and gold threads. The family own the only map of the whole island, which has been handed down through her mother’s family for generations and now hangs on their wall. I loved Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first chapter, which drew me in with teasing suggestions of mythology and magic.

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Isabella’s best friend is Lupe, the Governor’s daughter, which gives the reader an insight into and connection with their family. As Governor’s daughter, Lupe has a privileged and sheltered upbringing, seemingly unaware of the nastier side to her father’s character and blind to the more distasteful goings on of his rule. It is clear that their friendship is not encouraged by either side.

The inciting event is the murder of a young girl from Isabella’s class at school. Lupe had sent her into the orchard to get fruit for her and she never returned. Claw marks seem to show she has been attacked by a gigantic beast, but Isabella’s father is sceptical and the general feeling is that a person is the perpetrator. A curfew is put in place by the Governor. A family friend, Pablo, who tends the Governor’s horses, joins a group of villagers who have formed a search party. Throughout these scenes the mood of unrest bubbles along the surface and the tension keeps the reader turning the pages.

When Lupe and Isabella have a secret meeting, Isabella is astonished to hear that the Governor is planning a secret trip with his family. Lupe has been told not to tell anyone, but of course confides in Isabella. Isabella is affronted by Lupe’s careless attitude towards current events, as well as the knowledge that the Governor is clearly planning on deserting the island. She cruelly fills her in on the girl’s murder and a few home truths. Lupe runs off. Pablo appears at this point and escorts Isabella home. During their conversation, Isabella lets slip that the Governor is planning to disappear with his family. This snippet of information is passed on and it isn’t long before the community unrest turns to riots. The Governor’s ship is burned and his animals released. Strangely all the animals on the island are behaving peculiarly. Any that are not locked up run into the sea and drown themselves.

The Governor’s men react with force, taking away most of the villagers in prison carts to the Dedalo, including Pablo and Isabella’s dad. Isabella, all alone now, discovers a note from Lupe saying that she has run away into the Forbidden Territories to find the murderer herself. Isabella must take action. She disguises herself as a boy, her twin brother, and manages to convince the Governor to allow her to accompany his expedition into the Forbidden Territories to find his daughter. From here, we follow Isabella into the unknown, where she discovers the magic behind her mother’s map, struggles to separate myth from reality and finds courage she didn’t know she had.

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I’m not going to reveal any more of the story. I really want you to go out and buy ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ for yourselves, or borrow it from the library. Suffice to say, the book continues on its trajectory. The pace is perfect, the story is thrilling. I loved the weaving of mythology into the tale and the way in which it was done. Just as the reader is at the point of identifying with Isabella, the whisperings of mythology grow stronger and more factual. This has the effect of making the whole tale believable and almost possible.

I loved Kiran’s nods to a couple of literary devices; the mythological tale at the centre of the story and Isabella becoming a boy to gain the standing she needed to play a part in the action. The atmosphere of the book put me in mind a little of The Violins of St Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermour; that tropical, brooding, ominous feeling present from the very first sentence and growing with intensity to the climax. I’m in awe of ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’, please read it.

‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, published by Chicken House, is available from all good bookshops and libraries. It is also available as an eBook.

I wrote this review voluntarily and did not receive payment, monetary or otherwise, for it.

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