Arilou is proclaimed a beautiful prophetess -- one of the island's precious oracles: a Lost. Hathin, her junior, is her nearly invisible attendant. But neither Arilou nor Hathin is exactly what she seems, and they live a lie that is carefully constructed and jealously guarded.
When the sisters are unknowingly drawn into a sinister, island-wide conspiracy, quiet, unobtrusive Hathin must journey beyond all she has ever known of her world -- and of herself -- in a desperate attempt to save them both. As the stakes mount and falsehoods unravel, she discovers that the only thing more dangerous than the secret she hides is the truth she must uncover.
~Print copy (library), 566 pages
Published: 2009 by Harper
This book was really beautiful.
I don't say this because I think only a select few novels are beautiful, and this happens to be one of them. No, all books are beautiful, no matter whether I think they're beautiful or not. But this book stands out in the sea of beautiful-ness. (What a horribly cliche line. Wow.)
Let me explain what was so beautiful about this novel that made me sit up and notice:
First of all, there is the world. The worldbuilding is a large part of this novel -- that would be why it's over 500 pages long.
But it is a spectacular world, filled with Ashwalkers who kill murderers in order to wear a cloth dipped in their ashes; the Lace, a native tribe that is always smiling and have jewels in their teeth, and whose names are meant to echo natural sounds so they are forgotten by the precious volcanoes they live under; and there is the Lost, a group of people who have the natural ability to untangle their five senses from their body and cast them out into the world, therefore bringing news from all over the island back to their home village.
That, right there, is a fully imagined, richly decorated world. It is the sort of worldbuilding I aspire to when I sit down to write the umpteenth draft of my first novel. It is a fantasy lover's dream come true.
But that is not all about this novel. Then there are the characters.
Arilou is a Lost Lace girl, whose name is meant to echo the sound of an owl. But it is suspected by the entire village -- never spoken aloud, in case of an eavesdropping Lost -- that Arilou isn't really a Lost. Perhaps she is just an imbecile.* And when a Lost inspector shows up to test her, and dies right there, people naturally panic.
Hathin, Arilou's little sister and nurse, has a name meant to mimic the settling of dust. She goes unnoticed; that is, until she escapes from the colonists who blame the Inspector's death on the hated Lace. Then, she must travel the island and hop away from her enemies, all the while dragging insensible Arilou. Hathin is really my favorite character; perhaps it's because I'm unnoticeable myself, but I really connected with her.
Later on, another group comes to the foreplay: a group of revenge-seeking Lace called the Reckoning. But these venture into the middle of the novel and I don't want to give away too many threads of the plot.
Which brings me to the complicated plot.
Seriously, this plot, despite its complexity, just sort of unfolds organically. This is the first time in a long while that I've actually been satisfied with the ending; it's the first time in awhile since I've really gotten myself lost in the middle part of the book. Each part builds on the last part, until it's built itself a mountain of plot. Not like Mt. Everest mountain plot, but like any number of smaller mountains that even the most average person could climb. (This metaphor got a little out of hand. Sorry.)
In retrospect -- who am I kidding? While reading this book -- I can't help but marvel on the comment of how mythology and tradition can impact lives. These Lace believe that their names should be forgotten, so the volcanoes forget them. These people travel around the volcanoes, even though it takes longer; they believe they can't set foot on them without either being shielded by dead people's ashes or by asking favor from the volcanoes themselves. The colonists give the best farmland to the ashes of their dead ancestors; in fact, the reasons their colonist ancestors came over to the island 200 years earlier was to use the island as a mass cemetery, because the ashes of their dead are that important to them.
Tradition, mythology, belief systems; they are a lot more powerful than reason. While reading this book, I didn't see the natural rock slides of a mountain, or natural lakes set in the mountain, or other normal volcano activity; I saw what the Lace saw, how the volcano was giving them a blessing or showing their wrath for trespassing. I saw how a flower growing on the main volcano (the King of Fans) was a gift to the neighboring mountain, the Lady Sorrow.
*That is a term the novel uses, by the way -- I don't imply that I think the mentally handicapped are imbeciles. My sister has Down Syndrome; trust me, I know that they aren't imbeciles in the way people think they are.