The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: brilliant inside and out

I had heard about The Girl of Ink and Stars many times from many people before I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave – it was Children’s Book of the Month not once but twice at Waterstones, (later going on to win Children’s Book of the Year), was a Financial Times Book of the Year, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Award, and was shortlisted for both the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award. Not only that, but many people I trust for book recommendations and follow online, such as Carrie Hope Fletcher on YouTube, read it and recommended it. And I, as an aspiring young adult author, really wanted to read it.

Initially, many other books got in my way. Naturally, studying an English and Creative Writing degree, I had a lot of poems, novels, short stories, and plays to read for my course, and these obviously took precedence. Everytime I walked into my local Waterstones, there was a lovely display of copies of the book, in windows or on the tables, and I desparately wanted to pick up a copy, but just… didn’t.

But then I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She came to do a guest lecture at my university about writing “children’s” fiction was inspiring, especially for someone like me who sits working on my young adult novel whilst my friends work on amazing pieces that sit nicely under the label of ‘literary fiction’. She was incredibly lovely, no pretenses that the process was easy as she projected the word counts of her numerous drafts to show how the first draft was never the finished product, frank talk about the effect of mental illness on her writing process and how she battled through it, and information about the way things are done publishing-wise either side of the pond. She also discussed with us how ridiculous it is that some books are considered better than others due to their genre, a sentiment I very much share. Needless to say, The Girl of Ink and Stars jumped up my reading list, and I bought a copy almost immediately. And I am so glad I did.

The first thing that amazed me was the beauty of the whole book. The cover itself is gorgeous, but the pages themselves are where the true amazement lies. Each page is decorated like a map in keeping with the protagonist Isabella’s dreams and her father’s job as a cartographer. The result is that every page feels like a step on the journey that the characters undertake, mapping out the unknown of their island. I’ve never seen pages like it, and I urge you to pick up the book if only to see the pages.

The only potential issue with a gorgeous cover is that sometimes the contents don’t quite live up to their presentation.

This book definitely did not have that issue.

The story centres around the character of Isabella, who volunteers to guide a search for her friend after she gets lost in what the people of her village call ‘The Forgotten Territories’. More than eager to explore the island and chart it on a map, following in the footsteps of her father, a cartographer, she ventures in to the Forgotten Territories with the search party, and finds herself facing a lot more trouble than she initially expected.

The exposition of the story is slow and subtle, revealing a world that is not too dissimilar from our own – after all, Kiran Millwood Hargrave does say that the places in all of her novels are real places, but they obviously feature some slight embellishments. The relationships between the characters are great – I particularly enjoyed seeing the friendship between Isabella and Lupe, as a focus on friendship rather than romance is so refreshing to see. The mythic elements were really interesting, and tied well into the rest of the plot.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been a little longer. As it was, at just over 200 pages, I felt the world wasn’t explored to its full potential. I would love to have seen adventures spanning over the whole island in depth, as there are some villages displayed on the map that are barely visited, only for a page or two, and some that are not visited at all. The world of the book was so great, it just seemed a shame to leave it at what felt almost like the bare minimum exploration, especially when the protagonist talks about how much she wants to explore the entire island of Joya throughout the novel.

Overall,  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and adventure, and wants to read something refreshing.

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The Transition by Luke Kennard: a reflection of issues of a highly possible near future

The first thing I noticed when picking up Luke Kennard’s debut novel the Transition was, as it so often is with any book, the cover. It certainly stands out – the blue cover with plain white writing and a weird circle would be expected more of a textbook than fiction.

The premise in itself is very interesting, which is always a good start. The novel is set in a near future, where there is a secret program that goes by the name of the Transition, aimed at people who have committed crimes in an attempt at reformation of character. In this program, you and your partner live with a couple older than you, who attempt to teach you their ways. Karl and his wife Genevieve are the couple who are subject to the Transition in the novel, after Karl is convicted of fraud and a tax infraction. The novel explores their experience through the Transition, the problems that they face, and the truths that Karl uncovers.

One very interesting thing about the book is that you are kept as in the dark as Karl. He discovers things that are somewhat fishy about the Transition, but his mentors, Janna and Stu, have responses to any and all of the queries he raises. It is up to you as a reader, as it is up to Karl, to believe whichever side you find most reasonable. The better side is more defined at the end, but the ambiguity throughout leads to uncertainty as to how the novel will end. Normally, I can predict the ending of any plot, and so I was a little wary to finish this book as any ending I could imagine was unsatisfying – if there’s one thing I hate, it’s an unsatisfying ending. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. It made perfect sense, and now I’ve read it, I can’t imagine it ending any other way.

Kennard also explores the issue of mental health very tactfully within the novel. However, it would have been nice to have Genevieve as not so much of a damsel in distress all the time, requiring Karl’s constant supervision (at least, in Karl’s opinion). Her success is depicted as a result of mania before depression, which is not unrealistic, but it would have been nice to see her have some further character development. I understand that her not having any development is representative of the cyclical nature of her mental health issues, but even the slightest development would be appreciated – something to show that she is a capable unique person in spite of her mental health issues. Regardless, the manner in which everyone treated Genevieve with relation to her mental health issues was the most truthful and good to see – the way Karl describes people ‘running for the hills’ when she takes a turn for the worst is not dissimilar to the way I have seen people act both in my own personal experience and in the experience of others. The treatment of mental health in the modern day is something that we seriously need to address, and Kennard certainly highlights that through this.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes being afraid for our future as the human race. Kennard’s switch from poetry to prose seems effortless, and I look forward to reading any future novels that he writes.