I honestly don’t read a huge amount of middle grade fiction. Even as a kid I was more inclined to read teen and adult fiction–or classics–than I was to read middle grade. There were exceptions, but by and large I didn’t read a huge amount of it (Nicholas Fisk, Diana Wynne Jones, and Joan Aiken being three HUGE exceptions, because they’re amazing).
Frances Hardinge is a new, huge exception. THE LOST CONSPIRACY (also known as GULLSTRUCK ISLAND, depending upon which country you live in) was the first book of Frances Hardinge’s that I ever read (I think. Maybe it was TWILIGHT ROBBERY, which I also love).
Hathin belongs to a tribe called The Lace, whose perennially smiling faces and Sweeny-Todd-like legacy of human sacrifice behind those smiling faces have left them to be widely regarded in suspicion and horrified fear by the peoples around them. Hathin’s chief difficulty and chief responsibility are one and the same: her older sister, Arilou. They are described thusly:
“Her name was Hathin. While Arilou’s name was meant to sound like the call of an owl, the fluting of a bird of prophecy, Hathin’s name imitated the whisper of settling dust. Dust-like she was indeed, unremarkable, quiet, all but invisible.”
Arilou is The Lady Lost, considered special; a lady of prophecy, possessed of great and awesome powers. Her powers are the reason that Hathin’s village has enough food for the winter and a place to live, not to mention a small income from selling relics and suchlike. Unfortunately, those powers are entirely faked. Hathin and the Lace have been keeping Arilou’s lacking mental capacities a secret, ‘translating’ her drooling and moaning to seem as though they’re prophecies. But now an inspector is arriving to test Arilou’s ‘powers’, and it may not be long before they’re all exposed.
Things happen very quickly after the opening is set up. The inspector is murdered. Then almost the entirety of Hathin’s village is also murdered, leaving her on the run and dragging the mentally lacking Arilou along behind her.
What I love about Frances Hardinge is the fact that she’s not afraid to have ugly characters. I don’t mean physically ugly, though she’s not afraid of that as well. I mean the whole setup of a young girl from a people with human sacrifice in their (not too distant) past. There are a lot of stories about the Nazis, and fighting the Nazis, but what would it be like to grow up in the next generation, knowing your people were responsible for such atrocities? There are a lot of countries in real life that have done similar things: my own country of Australia, and the hunting and murder of Aboriginals; the ‘settlement’ of America, where Native Indians were murdered and pushed out of their own land; the Nazis, as previously mentioned; and so on. THE LOST CONSPIRACY was the first time I’d seen anything like this in fiction.
Added to the interest of the subject matter (and the fact that Frances Hardinge is one of the few authors who can still surprise me with the direction a book takes), is the fact that the writing is so absolutely beautiful. For style as well as substance, Frances Hardinge’s books are some of the best out there.
There’s so much more I could say about this book, but the most important thing I have to say is: BUY IT. READ IT. This is one of my favourite books. It’s also eminently re-readable, which is one of the biggest tests of the worth of a book.