Book Review, Middle Grade Fiction

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Short Review

The Girl of Ink & Stars from the outset is quite a remarkable and magical book. Kiran Millwood Hargrave has created something very special, interweaving a fable like quality to her writing which turns the ordinary into something quite extraordinary, and showcases her ability as a writer. With a story full of courage and wonder, it is the story from a childlike innocence to a coming of age epic. Highly recommended.

You may also like ‘The House with Chicken Legs‘ by Sophie Anderson, ‘The Grimms’ Fairy Tales‘ and ‘The Island At The End Of Everything‘ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

Long Review

Chicken House Books have a knack of producing high quality children’s and young adult fiction that is both captivating and uniquely different from that which is saturating the market ‘Beetle Boy’, ‘Who Let the Gods Out?’ and ‘Tin’ should get an honourable mention here.

The Girl of Ink & Stars’ is no different from the high quality one has come to expect from Chicken House Books. Hargrave does not disappoint as she delivers a wonderful blend of mythology and fable that makes it a brilliant book to read for children and young adults alike, even offering adults who love the escapism that comes from reading these types of books something to enjoy.

Let’s not forget the person that heads up Chicken House Books Barry Cunningham OBE who is publisher and Managing Director of the company. For those of you who don’t know who Barry Cunningham OBE is; he’s the man who discovered and signed up J.K Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone’ when working for Bloomsbury and we all know how well that turned out. Chicken House Books also have James Dashner and his phenomenal ‘Maze Runner‘ series on their books; so it’s easy to see that Barry Cunningham and his team at Chicken House Books know what makes a wonderful story and their cements the reason to publish ‘The Girl of Ink & Stars’.

The Girl of Ink & Stars’ has an intrinsic beauty that is bound between the pages of this stunning debut novel. Not only is the cover beautiful, it also contains a story that is equally as beautiful. A story full of courage and wonder; leaning heavily into the world of fairy tales and fables taking us on a journey from childhood wonderment to a coming of age story where our main protagonists are transformed and changed forever, it’s a story that had me captivated from start to finish.

There was only one map that showed the whole of our island, and it hung in Da’s study. I called it Ma’s map because it had been passed down through her family for generations, maybe ever since Arinta’s time, a thousand years ago. It had always felt like a sign that Ma and Da were meant for each other, that he was a cartographer and her only heirloom was a map.

Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin, in the way we walk, even in the way we grow, Da would often say. See here, how my blood runs not blue at my wrist, but black? Your mother always said I was ink. I am a cartographer through to my heart.

Hargrave has a simplistic tone to her writing that aids the reader in becoming fully submerged in the story from the outset. It’s a book which I devoured over a few sittings; with Hargrave’s intricate yet simplistic tone pulling you deep into the story, which is complex but never confusing, making you want to invest your time and learn more about this strange new world, the island of Joya. There is also an arresting quality to the way Hargrave writes her characterisations that help the reader form an attachment to them early on; meaning that we care about the fates of the characters and the conclusion of their story.

The only small criticism I have regarding the book was that it was rather short, I feel that if the book were a tad longer it would have taken it to another level in Children’s / Young Adult Fiction. I also could not help but think that Hargrave was possibly sowing the seeds for a series of books (if so I would be delighted if she returned to this world) but this may have more to do with my own personal preference. Call me selfish but I just wanted to spend more time with the characters and the world that was intricately woven by Hargrave.

The story follows the life of Isa the daughter of a cartographer, Lupe the daughter of the villainous Governor and Pablo one of the young boys forced into labour camps by the Governors arrival. The book has the feeling of an old-fashioned fairy tale story. Writing a fairy tale genre piece needs to include a hero or heroine, a villain, a magical or mythical element of the story, Joya the magical location where the story takes place, the lesson (moral) of the story and of course a wonderful if not happy ending – and this book doesn’t fail to deliver on all those points.

The story behind ‘The Girl of Ink & Stars’ is the type of story that my father would often read to me or make up, sewing elements from fables, stitching in mythological creatures or beings here and there and in doing so creating worlds that to a young mind I thought existed. Maybe that’s why the book resonated so well with me?

I still don’t honestly know what happened in the labyrinth. I told Da what I could, about the Tibicenas and the map’s hidden layer, though he has only my word. The map is destroyed and the demon dogs vanished. Perhaps the sea swallowed them, as it swallowed their master. It’s hard to know the facts, or even if facts matter with an ending like a floating island. But I do know Lupe saved my life…

Hargrave writes with the skills of an aged raconteur never at all looking out of her depth, at points even conjuring up the greats such as The Brothers Grimm, Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Andersen and C.S Lewis. You may feel that this is a slightly far fetched a statement, if you do then I’d just encourage you to read the book and make the decision yourself, and if you have a young son or daughter, read this book with them, they will love it! It has the feel of a Narnia for a new generation.

The wood is all that’s left of Great-Great-Grandfather Riosse’s boar. It was built from a single, special tree, as light, pound for pound, as egret’s bone. But this was not the most remarkable thing. When he scratched at the wood, the bark under his fingernails shone. Once cut, planks revealed the glowing grain. Nails slid easily into the wood without splitting it, and when in place held fast. The boat grew beneath his fingers as simply as if the tree had re-rooted itself and taken on a new form. Two months later Luna Flotante – Floating Moon – was finished, its sides glazed with dragon-tree sap so that when night fell it glowed like a beacon of fire. Fish were so attracted by the light that he could simply scoop them out of the ocean with his hands. But his luck did not last.

There are some elements of the book that I could not help but think of J.R.R. Tolkein through their reliance on mythology and small similarities; in my opinion, there is no one greater at writing this genre. Hargrave should be encouraged with the comparison to his undeniable brilliance. My comparisons revolved around the walking stick that Isa uses that glows in the dark; was similar to the short sword that Frodo uses in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ called ‘Sting’. I also found myself comparing the Tibicenas (crazed beasts) to the Ringwraiths (Nazgul) of middle earth – with these serving their dark Lord Sauron; and in ‘The Girl of Ink & Stars’ the Fire Demon Yote.

Hargrave writes with a passion for this genre that is clear to see, her tenacious and brave heroines are a change from the norm, that my seven year old daughter and I loved. Her use of mythology is something that I really enjoyed and her ability to weave an intricate storyline in such a short space of time is an achievement in itself.

If you like mythology, fairy tales, multi-layered characters and a story you can get behind then you’re sure to find something within ‘The Girl of Ink & Stars’. We’d recommend you also read her other book ‘The Island at the End of Everything’. Her new book ‘The Way Past Winter‘ is out later this year and we are all so very excited!

The Girl of Ink & Stars is published by Chicken House Books and is available here.

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave is an award-winning poet, playwright, and bestselling author. Her debut The Girl of Ink & Stars won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2017 and the British Book Award’s Children’s Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Jhalak Prize, the Branford Boase Award and the Little Rebels Prize. Her second novel The Island at the End of Everything was released in April 2017, and has been shortlisted for both the Costa Book Awards and the Blue Peter Book Awards. Her fourth poetry collection OE, a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice in collaboration with the artist Tom de Freston, was published by Bloomsbury in October 2017. Kiran lives by the river in Oxford with her husband, Tom, and their cat, Luna.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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