Ulysses 31 was the greatest show on earth when I was a kid. I was five years old when it aired and completely smitten with Ulysses, Telemachus, Yumi and Nono and enchanted by their many adventures. As I grew up I remembered the show as something rich and layered and utterly bewitching in every way. I waxed lyrical about it to Thumbs when we talked about things from our childhoods, and finally, one Christmas, he bought the DVD boxset for me. I was so excited. We settled down to watch it. I sang along with the opening theme. And then I learned that my five-year-old imagination was in some ways more sophisticated than my twenty-five-year-old one. The show was still good, and beautiful, but it wasn’t everything I remembered. The episodes were so short! Every trial was overcome so quickly! All the deep meaningful stuff was missing … My childhood brain had taken the show as a starting point and ran with it, creating a massive imaginary world in my head where Ulysses and his small crew were my friends and we all had adventures and then went home for tea together. My adult brain wondered where all the detail was. I didn’t finish watching the boxset. I took it to a charity shop, where I hope a someone bought it for their young daughter or son and the magic happened all over again.
Tempted as I am, I will not be buying The Mysterious Cities of Gold boxset.
The Girl of Ink and Stars doesn’t have much in common with either Ulysses 31 or The Mysterious Cities of Gold, except that it too is written for a younger audience. This is a book that I would have loved as a kid and it’s only now that I’m older and lazier and expect authors to do all the work of imagining their world and characters for me that I can’t appreciate it quite as much as I should. Then again, that’s what you get for swapping out your planned book for one two hundred pages shorter because you’re behind on your own self-imposed Book Bingo deadline. (It’s only cheating if I say it is though, so I’m in the clear).
Anyhow, at just over two hundred pages long and aimed at a pre- to early teen audience, I got lost in this story for an afternoon, curled up in front of the fire with a bar of chocolate. It’s about a cartographer’s daughter, Isabella, and her best friend, the Governor’s daughter, Lupe. It is also about their island home of Joya – which everyone is forbidden both to leave or explore – and the myths that surround it. It’s an adventure story, a mystery, and it’s got a nice blend of fantasy and reality.
Things I couldn’t get enough of:
- The beautifully descriptive writing. There are some lovely images, particularly of maps and the art of map-making, and some striking ones, such as all the remaining animals trying to escape the island by stampeding into the harbour. In places this book made me think of authors like Isabel Allende and Carlos Ruis Zafon, which is never a bad thing.
- Isa and Lupe’s relationship. I really liked that it was the girls’ relationship at the heart of the story and not some gooey romance or … snooze … a love-triangle. It’s a well-imagined, authentic relationship: Isa and Lupe squabble over silly things, but they also admire each other’s strengths and know they can trust one another. The ending wouldn’t be as good as it is without this relationship.
- The adventure. There’s exploration, mild peril, and a real cost for surviving the journey. The tension at the beginning of the book when Cata is found dead in the orchard was pretty compelling too.
- Miss La – I definitely want more grumpy chickens in my reading material! (As I am sure others have pointed out, there are quite a few parallels between The Girl of Ink and Stars and Disney’s Moana – a heroine with a fascination for the ocean that is forbidden her, the threat of a fiery supernatural being and the land dying, and a chicken companion in a South Sea island setting. Just saying).
Things I wanted more of:
- Lupe’s relationship with her father the Governor could have been explored a lot more. It had so much potential, kid’s book or not. The Governor is the sort of character whose secrets are just begging to be revealed and while we discover something of his past, there is a mention of redemption that never follows through. So, so much more could have been done with him. (Lupe’s mother, on the other hand, may as well not have been in the story at all).
- The Banished from the Forbidden Territories of the island. OMG! We meet a couple of them for a few pages and then they’re gone and we hear no more. I was gutted. How have they survived for so long cut off from the rest of the island? What’s the story between Ana and the Governor? What was Doce’s childhood like? How have the people of Gromera and the Banished never crossed paths before? Surely someone would have said ‘ah, sod the rules, let’s go see what’s over there’??
- Arinta and Yote and the demon dogs. Oh, I wanted more flesh on the bones of that story! What really happened to Arinta? What’s Yote’s motivation? More! More! More!
As a kid I’d have filled in all these blanks, but now I’m just a greedy, lazy adult who doesn’t have the brain space. What I do have is a couple of younger library customers who would love this book, and it makes me happy to think that it might become something special for them. And if I’m lucky they’ll want to talk to me about it when they’ve read it, and I’ll get to see it from another angle. In the meantime, if Kiran Millwood Hargrave decides to write more I’ll be interested to see what she does next.