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So, Frances Hardinge. I really liked Fly-by-Night, but for some reason didn't feel the deep love for it that I would have expected to feel. And Verdegris Deep I liked even more - loved even - but not with such a gut-level love that I expected to see quite so much glow (glowingness?) in what I wrote about it when I read it during 2007's 48 Hour Book Challenge. Anyway, she's an author I will grab new book by without a heartbeat's hesitation, and this time I feel all the love, liking and admiration that a lot of my reading buddies felt for the others. And did I mention love? Yes? Because I love this book. Just making sure that's clear.

The only thing I don't love is the cover, which is a bit generic sparkly children's 'adventure' story for my taste. And sure, there are elements in there which fit the 'adventure story' bill, but there are also elements which could better be described as racial conflict story, or as dysfunctional family story in a Diana Wynne Jonesesque way. And there's the very powerful story of Hathin, and how she deals with being given the role of minder of her important, potentially-powerful (but possibly 'an imbecile') sister, Arilou, and how she copes again and again with loss and apparently hopeless situations. And it's funny. But that special kind of funniness that comes in the middle of tragedy, and doesn't make it less in any way. There is far more tragedy than I expected when I picked up the book, and far more than I expected from the first 6 or so chapters, but it's not in any way diminished by the humour.

To give a brief summary so I can start playing the 'isn't-this-wonderful?' quoting game, Gullstruck Island is a relatively small tropical island, with several active volcanoes, several indigenous tribes (Hathin's is the Lace), and a colonial people who came to Gullstruck looking for more land in which to bury their ancestors. They've intermarried but, as is so often the case, the most powerful are still recognizably most Cavalcaste. The Lost are a group of people born with the ability to send their senses out of their bodies - something which has come to be used in some rather mundane ways, such as sending messages around the island, but which marks them out as valuable and to-be treasured. Arilou is - or maybe isn't but they all have to pretend she is - or maybe she is after all - Hathin's village's Lady Lost.

What struck me afterwards was that Hardinge in no way played down the otherness of the Lace; although we see most often through Hathin's perspective, we also see them occasionally from the outside, and it's all very effective in keeping us slightly off-balance as readers. So there's the absolutely straight-forward colonial disregard for native inhabitants and their ways, and we're certainly empathetic to that, but there's the odd jolt delivered from the casual mention of some of the actions of the Lace in the past. And for all things like the constant smiling of all the Lace do allow us to see them as an outsider might - people who smile all the time, no matter how angry, afraid or miserable, would definitely unsettle me - what we see of the Cavalcaste ways are sometimes so ridiculous as to be highly entertaining farce. So no group is playing 'civilised', really, in any sense of the word.

Another thing that struck me afterwards - and you can see it's the kind of book that really stays with you - was that there was nothing shown to be inherently wrong with anyone's beliefs, but there was sometimes a lot wrong with what people thought their beliefs allowed or made them do. A couple of quotes here - though it's very hard to choose quotes which don't give away some of the hugely significant, and often shocking, events.

[The governor] had to be seen to do something, and his people had told him what they wanted. Law and order must be protected, he told himself, glancing about his tidy, candlelit parlour for reassurance, sometimes at the expense of law and order.

[A character observing two men talking] Both thought that they could use words to make people do what they wanted, and one of them was right. The younger man with the scarred face tried to gust people along with a fussy logic, pelting them with reasons like fistfuls of feathers. The lean, older man with the plausible smile used words to gloss and slope the ground so that people slithered quite naturally in the direction he wished, not even knowing why.

[Someone explaining why he and his fellows had acted as they had] 'The conflict was of their making. In the end, my superiors had no choice. If [...] had told what they knew, the mines would have been closed, the farmers would have fled the volcanoes, and the whole island would have starved. As I said, some things have to be done.'

'That's what our priests thought two hundred years ago,' said Hathin quietly. 'And they were wrong too.'

During the course of the story, Hathin meets up with the Reckoning - a group of Lace resistance, who have vowed to get revenge for loved ones. They get a tattoo of a butterfly wing on their arms when they swear the oath of revenge. There's a kid (Lace, but not obviously, and so useful for a lot of errands and the like) who hangs around, desperate in an amusing way, to be 'wronged' so he can get the tattoo and become one of them. And suddenly it goes from amusing puppy-like behaviour to horribly over-the-line:
'It's not a game!' All the others flinched as Hathin's voice echoed with cold clarity from the surrounding crags. 'The tattoo isn't something you wear to impress girls, like a ... a ... a hat! You see this?' Hathin pulled off the wrapping around her forearm. 'You see these? These?' She dragged back the sleeves of J. and then T. to show their tattoos. 'We didn't want them, Tomki. They mean we're ... we're broken. Broken so badly we can't ever be fixed.... and ... and all that's left to us is breaking something else.'
I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Hathin isn't broken so badly she can never be fixed, and a scene I thought a good example of the wonders of the language - humour mingled with odd and fantastically effective images, mixed with real, spare strength came near the end, concerning revenge. She's told by one of the Reckoning - her close friends by this point - not to stand in their way.
The black bead in Hathin's stomach seemd to have torn itself apart in the scream that had sent [...] to her death. Hathin's legs would not hold steady, but would not buckle. She could not take a step, could not slump. What was left for her to do but stand?

'So how many deaths do you need, D.? Will a town be enough? Will that make the pain go away? Or will you still need the Reckoning so you can live through other people's revenges? There is no "enough". If we let [things happen], the the story doesn't end, it goes on retelling itself. Their revenge and ours, feeding each other, rolling over and over like fighting cats forever. And [--] will die again and so will [--] Different faces and names, but for all the same reasons. [....] All we can do is try to stop others dying like those we lost. Even if that means taking up arms against the volcano.'

It was a strange stand-off, like a staring match between a mountain and a sea poppy. The jungle stirred restlessly around them, but neither woman nor girl moved, even when a brown snake slithered hurriedly between the feet of one and then the other.

Even though it doesn't tell what happens, it doesn't seem right to quote the gloriously sad-happy ending. It has to be read where it belongs, at the end of a beautifully written, deeply moving and thought-provoking story. Although the temptation to give just a line or two....

(Apologies if this posts oddly - LJ would not give me a cut where I wanted it and indenting for quotes at the same time, no matter what I did. I want the wasted half-hour of life back.)

Date: 2009-02-05 11:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lady-schrapnell.livejournal.com
Gah - LJ really seems to have it in for me tonight! I think my reply to [livejournal.com profile] steepholm went to you, seeming to taunt you with the promise of a book delivery. I really hope you'll be able to get your hands on it soon!

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