TheBookSmugglers's Reviews > Gullstruck Island

Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge
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Ana’s Take:

This probably sounds extremely clichéd, but reading a Frances Hardinge book is like entering a whole new world. Take Gullstruck Island for example: where consuming a certain type of fish allows one a glimpse of the future; where a beetle song is deadly; and where different peoples fight for survival, as the places for the honoured dead expand at the expense of the places for the living. On one small corner of the island, the Lace – who smile all the time with their adorned teeth and whose names imitate the sounds of nature so that they don’t draw attention from the volatile, living volcanoes that pepper the island – struggle against poverty and overwhelming prejudice.

Their only hope is their Lost, Arilou, who might one day become the most important person on the island and bring riches to the Lace. Born only occasionally and respected for their abilities, the Lost are a different people on their own. Able to send their senses away from their bodies and wander around, they function as the island’s main form of communication across towns and as a sort of sage figure, their important political role unspoken rather than openly asserted.

Arilou is a different Lost though – someone whose mind wanders and rarely comes back. She can’t communicate and that is the best kept secret amongst the Lace, a secret shared and understood without being spoken out loud. Enter Hathin: Arilou’s unassuming sister, born especially to take care of Arilou, to be there for her at all times and to speak on her behalf. It is on her young shoulders that the fate of the Lace truly lies and she lives with this truth every single day of her life.

But then…the Lost start to die mysteriously. All of them are gone except for Arilou and so a history of mistrust and prejudice leads to the Lace being found guilty. Arilou and Hathin must run for their lives but how can the duo survive when one of them can hardly function on her own, on an island where everybody hates them and with an assassin on their track?

And this barely scratches the surface of Gullstruck Island.

Adventurous, wildly imaginative, engaging, thought-provoking, often heartbreaking, always inspiring, Gullstruck Island soars powerfully and beautifully. I feel like a broken record but Frances Hardinge’s imagination is otherworldly and awe-inspiring. It frustrates me a little bit that I do not have the equivalent talent (LOL, how could I) in order to express how good her books are, how awesome Gullstruck Island is. I always feel when I am writing a review of one of her books that I am woefully boring and incapable to convey the sheers brilliance of her stories. I tend to dwell on certain aspects like her powerful social commentary or her heroines’ incredible story arcs and then miss things like…say, the Reckoning in Gullstruck Island. They are group of Lace warriors who abjured their older lives so that they can avenge the death of those they loved and whose deadly weapons are anything they can get a hold of. And then there is the whole thing about the difference between revenge and justice and how different people choose different ways and it is awesome.

The best thing is how Gullstruck Island (the place) is a completely different, original setting in which familiar themes of friendship, sisterhood, coming of age, overcoming prejudice and finding one’s place in the world are explored without a shadow of clichéd writing or oversimplification.

A theme that runs through Gullstruck Island is the insidious nature of prejudice which sometimes is not even OVERT and can even be disguised as friendly. Take this quote for example:

It was a joke, but centuries of distrust and fear lay behind it.

Soon somebody would say something that was sharper and harder, but it would still be a joke. And then there would be a remark like a punch in the gut, but made as a joke. And then they would detain her if she tried to leave, and nobody woujld stop them because it was all only a joke…

Look at me, I am going on and on about things and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the characters are all incredibly well done and I loved them and I hated them and I feared for them and I rooted for them. But most especially, Hathin is such an amazingly drawn, complex protagonist and her arc is inspiring (how many times have I used this word in this review?) and her actions are stirring and affecting. From her complicated relationship with her sister to the way she feels about her place in the world, it is impossible not to empathise with this character. And world, why can’t we have female protagonists like these all the time?

I seriously believe that there is nothing quite like Frances Hardinge’s books out there at the moment – in any shape or form (or genre and age group).

Dear Frances Hardinge: you have ruined me for other books this year and I love you for it.

And I will just finish with my favourite quote from the book:

“I am anything I wish to be. The world cannot choose for me. No, it is for me to choose what the world shall be.”

Thea’s Take:

Yes, yes, yes. Everything that Ana said. I have jumped on the Frances Hardinge bandwagon and have no plans of jumping off. Gullstruck Island is a beautiful, wildly imaginative book that is unlike most anything else out on the market today. Heck, I can’t think of any author in the YA or even adult space that possesses the same imaginative scope as Frances Hardinge.

In Gullstruck Island, we are introduced to an island-society, stratified by different groups of people – varied in their beliefs, in terms of their tribal representations, appearance, and history. Our heroine, Hathin, is one of the Lace – a group of peoples on Gullstruck, marginalized because of their air of perceived secrecy and duplicity, a prejudice that dates back to a time when the always-smiling Lace secretly killed and sacrificed humans to placate the volcanoes on the island. Since that horrific discovery generations earlier, the Lace have been ostracized and demonized by all other tribes on the island, from the Bitter-Fruit clan to the Sours. The one silver lining that the Lace have is Arilou – the Lost are rare on Gullstruck, but there has never been a Lost Lace before, so the respect and power that comes with having a Lady Lost is a huge boon to Arilou’s particular tribe (the Hollow Beasts).

There’s only one problem: Arilou, for all her beauty and seeming appearance of a Lady Lost, has never shown a sign that she is anything more than a mentally handicapped girl. This is the Hollow Beasts’ greatest secret, and all falls on the shoulders of young Hathin, Arilou’s sister and “interpreter” who, over the years, has cultivated a commanding voice for Arilou all the while making herself invisible and insignificant to any inquiring outsiders. When a pair of inspectors come to test Arilou and ensure she is, in fact, one of the Lost, things look bad for Hathin and her tribe. When one of the inspectors dies suddenly, and the other goes missing, marooned on the open ocean, things look even worse.

Someone is blaming their deaths on the Hathin’s people, and single-handedly leading an already Lace-prejudiced populace into an angry mob that seeks to wipe Hathin’s tribe from Gullstruck. It is up to Hathin to save Arilou, to avenge her tribe, and save the Lace from annihilation.

I cannot express how complex this book is, and how carefully and completely Frances Hardinge creates the world of Gullstruck and all its various peoples. The central themes of discrimination, fear, and unwarranted prejudice, stirred by heated to a frenzy by some very nasty individuals is not an unfamiliar one – finding an ethnic group or people of a different belief system to blame for misfortune is, unfortunately, a prevalent theme in human nature. In Gullstruck Island, Hardinge examines these ugly human sentiments with careful attentiveness and draws these historical parallels without ever seeming heavy-handed or didactic. This is the stuff of great writing, folks – and Hardinge handles these very important topics with all the grace and import they deserve.

But beyond the social strata and commentary, Hardinge also manages to simply create a world that is amazingly, breathtakingly full. It’s hard to believe that Gullstruck Island is not a real place, with real people! We learn the different languages that these people speak (“Nundesrruth” short for “not under this roof” is a pidgin dialect, versus “Doorsy” which is the formal spoken and written language on the island). More than that, we see their different customs and beliefs, from the Lace’s affinity for smiling and drilling precious jewels in their teeth and creating long strands of shell jewelry, to the Ash people’s hunger for human ash to create and dye their skins and their goods. There are familiar elements from many different cultures and civilizations, but Hardinge makes these inhabitants completely her own.

And the characters! And the plot twists! What more can I say that Ana hasn’t already said? I loved Hathin with the force of a thousand supernovas. I loved her dedication to her sister Arilou, her feelings of pain and fear and ineptitude when her tribe is massacred, her desire to seek revenge and join the Reckoning. I loved Arilou, too, and the twists that come with her character in particular. There are villains and friends aplenty in Gullstruck Island, all believable and formidable enough, given texture and distinction with Hardinge’s clever prose.

If I had one complaint about this book – which isn’t so much a complaint as a note – it is that Gullstruck Island is unnecessarily long. This is something that I’ve noticed with Hardinge’s other books, and I think a detriment to her work. This title, as with A Face Like Glass are very long, very dense creatures that require days of reading time – and I’m an adult, that can read pretty quickly! Gullstruck Island is not the same type of quick, compulsive read that a Harry Potter or Twilight novel is – and I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I do think this is a reason why Frances Hardinge is not a household name. A middle grade level reader or YA reader, the target reader to which Hardinge’s books are aimed, likely does not have hours and hours of reading time. Gullstruck Island is a wonderful, complex novel as it is, but it probably could stand some careful pruning – which would not only help the story move along in a more direct fashion, but could also help its marketability to new audiences.

That said, I loved this book just way it is, and Gullstruck Island is absolutely one of my notable reads of 2012 (it would’ve made my top 10, had it been published in 2012!). Wholeheartedly, unabashedly recommended.
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Reading Progress

03/11/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Jesslyn (new) - added it

Jesslyn I recently finished A Face Like Glass and it was Fantastic! but thought it might have been a fluke. I guess not, so thanks for the rec!


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