Your Humble Blogger read and enjoyed Frances Hardinge’s first book, Fly-by-Night (I was clearly in a hurry when I wrote that one, not going in to the specifics, but in fact I really enjoyed its fun and subversive charm) and had difficulty getting in to any of her other books. I have taken both Well Witched and The Lost Conspiracy out from the local library multiple times and returned them unread. Then, after the most recent book won all sorts of awards, I thought I’d give them another try. So I took out The Lost Conspiracy for the third or fourth time, gave it a good try, and when I wasn’t absolutely hating it (but not really enjoying it) in the first few chapters, instead of trying another book or retreating to a favorite reread, I pressed on. And eventually became more absorbed in it, more interested in what she was doing, more fond of the characters and setting, and then, finally, got to the point of not wanting to do anything else that would interfere with my finishing the book. So that’s all right.
The book is about, well, it is most obviously about colonialism: Gullstruck Island (the setting and the UK title) is a volcanic island with a variety of indigenous tribes ruled over by the mainlanders. I think my difficulty getting into it was that it was so obviously about colonialism that it hit some of my Things Fall Apart buttons. And our Hero, a self-effacing young girl, wasn’t appealing to me at first. Even after her village was destroyed and she takes her sister on a desperate journey up the side of the volcano, she seemed not terribly interesting in herself, but as a collection of markers: of colonial oppression, of race prejudice, of gender prejudice, of the plight of the young. It isn’t until nearly half-way through the book that she came together for me as a character with characteristics rather than markers.
I could argue that this is because it isn’t until halfway through the plot that she manages to escape even partially, even in her own mind, all of those pressures: that it’s not until halfway through the book that she actually does become a character. Or perhaps it’s because Your Humble Blogger was impatient, or because my limousine-liberalism isn’t as comfortable with difference as it thinks. I think it’s an actual flaw in the book, though—I think Ms. Hardinge had such ambitions for the book and wanted to put so much of the world into it that our Hero suffers early on, and the reader really does have to wade through too much information about this world and its various tribes and IVSRs (institutions, values, symbols and rituals, for those Gentle Readers who weren’t around a dozen years ago when I used to use that shorthand for Clinton Rossiter’s formula of Conservatism) before the story becomes a story.
On the other hand, when the story does become a story, and the character does become a character, the book starts to sing and doesn’t stop. There’s a wonderful shift at the end, where it becomes more about climate change than colonialism, and it’s one of those moments which is beautifully set up, to the point where I probably said hunh! out loud. I hope I didn’t wake up my Best Reader at that point, because it was really quite late and I ought to have put the book down and turned off the light an hour before.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,