I said the other day that Radio Silence might just be my book of the year, but already there’s a new contender competing for this year’s place: Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars.
The Girl of Ink and Stars surprised me with how much was packed into two hundred or so pages. I pretty much only bought the book because I liked the cover (I know, I’m terrible) and I was worried that it would be a case of all-boasting, no-substance. Some books can be a bit over-produced but lack the content to make this seem worthwhile. This one has fold-out endpages that reveal two maps of the Island of Joya, the book’s main setting, and illustrations in the margins of every page. But, far from being a needless addition, these features actually add to the reading experience.
Extra time and thought have obviously been put into the book by its publishers. The same is true for the details and consistency of its imaginary world. The story takes place in the town of Gromera that sits on the edge of an island that once floated across the sea. Now, however, it’s a fearful place overlooked by the harsh Governor whose presence is rumoured to have driven away the songbirds. Myth and legend are a large part of Isabella’s character – our lead and daughter of a cartographer who has taught her all she knows – as she adventures around the island’s unexplored regions after her best friend goes missing.
There is just enough world building for a book of this size: enough to flesh out the story, but not enough to drag it down. Details about the world are dropped into the narrative very naturally and simply with no info-dumping in sight. The island of Joya’s history and geography are cleverly created and might even bring me back for a reread. The obvious Spanish influence keeps everything feeling consistent and grounded. Heavier themes – colonisation, harsh leadership, the death of family members – are handled in enough depth and with enough sensitivity so as to be valuable to readers of all ages (especially important as this book could be tackled by a confident seven- or eight-year-old).
The language is expressive and lyrical but relies on few words and this suits the themes and the story perfectly. The book begins as a relaxing magical story but by the end I was genuinely fearing for the safety of all the characters.
Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin, in the way we walk, even in the way we grow.
My favourite part is the amount that can still be taken from this book even after finishing the first time around. Here’s one to give you a taste:
At the beginning of the book, there is a map of the part of the island where Isabella lives. It includes a set of coordinates.
Being me, I had to look up them up: it’s La Gomera in the Canary Islands.
Christopher Columbus made La Gomera his last port of call before crossing the Atlantic in 1492 with his three ships. He stopped here to replenish his crew’s food and water supplies, intending to stay only four days. Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio, the Countess of La Gomera and widow of Hernán Peraza the Younger, offered him vital support in preparations of the fleet, and he ended up staying one month. When he finally set sail on 6 September 1492, she gave him cuttings of sugarcane, which became the first to reach the New World.
And guess what: Isabella’s father desperately wishes he could once again sail across the ocean so he can map and explore Amrica. If you read more about the island, you’ll see more parallels with the story!