The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
Ages 10 & Up.
The Lost Conspiracy: 576 pages are daunting for me. But for Frances Hardinge, the attempt is worth it. I figured I would try to divide up the book by chapter or page number, determined to get through and make time on it. I don’t why I would think this way because Frances Hardinge is a brilliant storyteller. I love Fly By Night. By love, I mean, this book sits in the top ten, if not five, best juvenile fiction books I’ve ever read. So yes, I read The Lost Conspiracy based on interruption (the screaming and house-burning sort). I did not want to put the book down. Knowing I had an early day filled with long hours surrounded by small people the next day, I still stayed up late to finish the book. There is not one dull page amongst the 576.
I am sure I may have mentioned this somewhere before, but there are two things that Hardinge is exceptional with: her diction, and her characterization. Everything lives in her books; nothing is inanimate; and thus, nothing is impossible. Hardinge’s imagination is limitless on the page, and this is exciting for the reader.
The Lost Conspiracy is recommended for 10 & up and I agree. Hardinge is timeless, and her adventures, though exciting and imaginative, provoke thought and contain criticism from which the older reader will benefit. There are also the dark aspects. Genocide has taken place on Gullstruck Island, and promises to return. There is mob violence of a horrible sort (by horrible I mean the extermination of a village with characters you come to know and care about). The Ashwalkers…
Revenge is a major theme, and valuable discussion point. Most important for the young reader (and old), however, is the idea that the small and invisible can make all the difference in a fracturing world.
The Prelude reveals a delicious taste of the magic and power of the Lost, and their value to the island of Gullstruck.
Like all Lost, he had been born with his senses loosely tethered to his body, like a hook on a fishing line. He could let them out, then reel them in and remember all the places his mind had visited meanwhile. Most Lost could move their senses independently, like snails’ eyes on stalks. Indeed, a gifted Lost might feel the grass under their knees, taste the peach in your hand, overhear a conversation in the next village, and smell cooking in the next town, all while watching barracudas dapple and flit around a shipwreck ten miles out to sea.
Lost minds occupied with the business of the island, keeping it functioning. Scrying for bandits in the jungles, tracing missing children on the rises, spotting sharks in the deeps, reading important trade notices and messages long-distances. (1-2)
I think I found a new super-power for all those icebreaker games. I would be a Lost. In contrast, the Prelude’s closing two paragraphs allude to the unnoticed; not Lost and ever present; the underestimated.
[Her name] was designed to sound like the settling of dust, a name that was meant to go unnoticed. She was as anonymous as dust, and Skein gave her not the slightest though.
Neither would you. In fact, you have already met her, or somebody very like her, and you cannot remember her at all. (5)
Perhaps her power will be just as transformational, and important. And certainly, if she has a power at all, we can identify with it more, and perhaps find the inspiration to be as courageous as she will prove to be.
Hardinge creates into being the most spectacular heroines.
The Living compete with the Dead, and the Present and Future conflict with the Past. And the use of story contains a value that is means to survival (and not just cultural). The Lost Conspiracy looks at story and its place to teach lessons and relay messages (subtexts); “The story had been a poem hiding a truth, like those tales with secret directions concealed in them” (510).
Those things that may occur on the grander scale (between volcanoes or governments/peoples) effect those on the smaller or singular; but the small and singular (Hathin) can, too, effect things on a grand scale, and the courage she finds to do so (or the desperation) is monumental to the story and its listener.
Like Fly By Night, there is the exploration of the Name creating meaning for the character and possibly effecting paths. For some characters, their Name is grounded in their ancestry (the Superior of Jealousy); and there are the Lace with their names born of nature sounds–Whish, Larsh, Arilou (an owl-sound), or Hathin (dust). That Hathin (a major character) comes from a name that reflects ubiquity and invisibility is important to her role and her abilities throughout; but she is not limited by her name; and possibly not even her body; “When that other spirit takes over your body and makes everyone obey you.” […] “You know, when your voice changes, and your personality changes, and the little worried crinkles in your forehead disappear, and you’re suddenly eight feet tall—“ (483-4).
Expectations of another and far grander sort apply to Hathin’s elder sister Arilou. By Arilou not fulfilling hers, expectations know to take a leave of absence for the rest of the book. Assumptions should not be made, and the devil is in the perceptions. Nothing is as it seems, and sometimes, as in Hathin’s case, this is a good thing.
The Lost Conspiracy creates an incredible landscape. I am often guilty of skimming past settings, especially of the natural sort, when reading novels. Hardinge makes everything interesting. That she can do this and often use Lore to do it is even better.
And in the third cave of the dead you had to hand over your mouth….
Row upon row of ghostly teeth, many the height of a man, jutted from the floor, tapered from the ceiling. Stalagmites, stalactites. The cave was agape with them, and beyond their bite was nothing but a dark throat. (86)
On Gullstruck Island there are volcanoes and geysers and mountains and coastal shores and caves and woods. They all have names and personalities and meaning. She uses this method to move the story forward, and in fact, they become not merely atmosphere or source of conflict but another layer, another character.
Carefully Therrot […] lifted out a slippery lump of the soap. He stooped near a convenient little water-filled crater in the shadow of a bush.
“Present for you, Lord Crackgem,” he muttered. “You don’t mind, do you?”
The water in the crater seethed as he dropped in the soap. As he stepped back to the barrow and stooped for some more, Hathin saw the foaming increase and the water start to fountain.
He turned in time to see the fountain become a wild, white plume, and to cover his face with his arms as the wind changed, lashing him with boiling spray and scalding steam. The two revengers grabbed at the barrow, and they slithered and tumbled their way down the slope to escape the geyser’s fury, stopping just short of the treacherous plain.
“He minds,” whispered Hathin. (306-7).
“Lord Crackgem has a soft spot for those with weak minds.”
“She drifted into sleep, but the breath of Lord Crackgem seemed to have drugged her dreams into madness.” (332)
Gullstruck has its native populations and its Imperialists who come to dominate the landscape (and its peoples). As the book is set years later, we are caught up on the history and the consequences of this invading culture and its peoples as the story moves along. As there are plenty familiar, we understand things without necessitating explanation. However, this does not remove the horrors. Hardinge would offer hope at the end, but there is no erasure of what was done. The book takes time at the end for tears to come, and it takes a deep breath and plunges you into an exhilarating end. I wish I could spoil it for you. Those last paragraphs are fantastic! Yes, first sentences are key but the last are as well, and The Lost Conspiracy will not disappoint.
The cultures living and interacting on the island are colorful. The Lace come across a bit horrific and terrifying. Their perpetual smiles with plated teeth sound daunting. And their history though starting as friendly becomes a bit frightening. But they are as human as their neighbors, and they have reasons and logic behind their existence as well. Throughout the book, Hathin peels back the layers of her culture, demystifying here, endearing us there. It is clear with whom the book sides and how ridiculous the Cavalcaste invaders really are; their superiority is ever a question. Not to say the storyteller lacks compassion.
However familiar some cultures and events sound (even woven together) the author does issue this statement:
A Note from the Author:
Neither the tribes of Gullstruck nor the Cavalcaste are designed to resemble or comment upon specific real-world races. Here and there I have worked in elements taken from various different cultures because they suited the story, but the world of Gullstruck is basically fantastical. (copyright page)
Still, if a class were studying Imperialism and Colonization; this would be an interesting read; a “safe” realm for exploration.
There is a murder conspiracy going on. Hathin and company need to figure out what is going on at risk of their survival. The events are well-conceived. Nothing is spare in this book. Nothing and no one is superfluous. Hardinge has a fairly large cast to play with, and she maintains consistency and focus.
Hathin and Arilou’s relationship is a fascination of the story and it plays out well. The relationship feels honest, and though painful at moments (many) there is beauty there. Other relationships develop throughout the story but the sisters’ is central.
I really am trying to think of something critical (possibly negative) to say about this book. I’d hate for my “gushing” to be seen as disingenuous or star-struck. Maybe I will find something by the time I finish with the book as the evening read aloud (bedtime story) with the daughter. As it is, now, I like this book on the level of entertainment and deeper thought. I can’t even argue against its page length.