When I first received ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ (TGIS) by Kiran Millwood Hargrave as a present, I was quite sceptical about what I would find. Judging the book by its cover (I know, I know) I could see it was the archetypal young adult (YA) fantasy fiction novel. When reading this genre in particular, I always hope to find a female character that doesn’t get: a) overpowered by men, b) sidetracked by men, or c) characterised as a stereotype.
You have no idea how hard it is to find a book that DOESN’T tick all of these boxes. I expected the book to fall short because of any combination of these things, like many of its predecessors. For once in my life I didn’t mind being proven wrong.
The story works in conjunction with the myths interspersed throughout and help to give reason to the main character’s — Isabella — actions. The novel follows the story of a 13 year-old girl who wholeheartedly believes these myths underpinning the history of her island, Joya, though these legends are not taken by most of the islanders as truth. They believe the nature of the island can be explained much more simply than in the folklore— it’s nicer to believe in wolves than monsters, right?
It’s the mythical character, Arinta, who saved the island a millennia ago and became the basis of the folklore that inspires Isabella. As well as wanting to do her loved ones proud, she also must to right the wrongs of the island in the same way Arinta did. Though she is aware — and is frequently reminded of the fact— that she is not some reincarnation of Arinta, it’s her childlike belief in her hero that pushes her. And though the reader is not left with any doubt over whether Isabella is another form of Arinta, she is never deterred from trying to live up to her bravery.
One aspect of the novel that I particularly loved was that romance was not the fulcrum of the story. Hargraves leaves room for the reader to infer what may happen after the story ends, but come the end of the novel, you can see that this is not what the story is about. In this way, it’s a welcome break from the cult classics of modern YA fiction where romance often dominates the plot. This genre is not known for shying away from teenage love and even love triangles, such as in The Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies. Some writers, as great and successful as they may be, still haven’t realised apocalyptic situations aren’t fixed by true love’s kiss.
In fact, TGIS does a total U-turn on this kind of narrative; the themes that prevail instead are that of familial love, strong female friendships, and self-reliance. Isabella’s entire journey is based on her making mistakes she has to put right. Her naïvety saw a coup take place against the omnipotent Governor of Joya, her father thrown in the Dédalo (prison), and her best friend, Lupe, risking her life to prove she is not as unscrupulous as her own father. These are the things that shape Isabella, drive the story and ultimately define it.
Isabella knows that she needs to amend what she has wronged; “the threads of problems [dangle] in front of [her], and [she] tried to weave them into a solution.” She takes her late brother’s identity so she may help the expedition to save Lupe in place of her father, the island’s cartographer. Her motivation in this novel isn’t simply because she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, she is trying to save the people she loves the most from the events she herself sets in motion.
In doing so, she also fulfils her own dream of finishing her father’s map of the island, including the forbidden territories. She uses the skills her father taught her to direct a group of the Governor’s men to rescue Lupe; she recognises her own shortcomings and persists in making a completed map of the island. The maps in this novel are such a driving-force that even the sections of the book are divided by different maps.
TGIS is the first novel I’ve read from someone only seven years older than me. I don’t know if I have the words to do justice to how well written it is, so I’ll leave you with some facts: 1) nothing that happens in this book is for the sake of the plot. It’s so well woven together that you can not only understand why things happen, but agree with Isabella for saying what she does, even though it leads to destruction; 2) it passes the Bechdel test; 3) it won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2017 — for a very, very good reason.