The pitch: On the fictional colonial island of Gullstruck, some people are born with their senses unstuck from their body — the Lost. They’re vital to the isolated island towns for communication, so when a Lost is born for the first time in a village of the maligned native Lace tribe, the Lace are thrilled. Respect and riches at last! There’s just one problem: Arilou may be developmentally disabled, not Lost at all. Her younger sister, Hathin, has one mission in life: care for Arilou and make sure everyone outside the village believes she’s Lost — until disaster strikes and Hathin is responsible for saving the Lace’s entire way of life.
The review: The most imaginative books are always the hardest to pitch, because I can’t say, “The premise is just like this other book, except for thus and so.” Not to mention the fact that every reveal is so satisfying that I hate to give anything away. So I’m not sure how to sell this one to my kids, except to shove it in the hands of every fantasy reader who won’t freak out at its 500-page heft and tell them not to talk to me until they’ve read the first few chapters. Which I plan to do pretty much immediately, because oh my goodness this book is amazing.
It is my favorite sort of fantasy: gorgeous world-building, intriguing characters who drive the plot, social commentary, and a million pieces that all fit together perfectly. I figured out one major plot point before the characters did, but it only made me feel smart, rather than annoyed. The pacing is outstanding — something new is always happening, and just when you think, “Oh, this is what the book is about,” it turns out to be about something else entirely.
Gullstruck makes allusions to 19th century Pacific colonial islands, but the Lace and other island tribes, as well as the Cavalcaste colonists, have enough cultural and historical specificity entirely distinct from their real-world analogues that I never felt smacked upside the head with the analogy, nor concerned about Eurocentric overtones. I think the book achieves the neat trick of saying smart things about colonialism and racism without being too obvious about it. (Of course, that might just be that I don’t know enough about the real-world analogues, so please comment if you’ve read it and think I’m off-base here.)
It is very much YA, in that it’s Hathin’s coming-of-age story, and it has the happiest ending you can imagine given the awful things that happen along the way. That said, though, I think this would play well for adult readers of fantasy as well as middle grade/teenage readers.
Also reviewed by: Melissa at One Librarian’s Book Reviews, Eva’s Book Addiction, and Megan Whalen Turner for Battle of the Books. And here is School Library Journal’s interview with Frances Hardinge, which put the book on my to-read list in the first place.