Isabella lives on the island of Joya with her father, a cartographer (someone who makes maps). When he was younger, Isabella’s father travelled the world, and Isabella is fascinated by the maps of all the places he has been. However, she’s even more fascinated by a map that belonged to her mother: this map shows Joya and includes the Forgotten Territories, a dense forest at its heart. The village where Isabella and her father live, Gromera, is ruled by the Governor, who won’t allow anyone to leave the village, or to go into the Forgotten Territories. The Governor’s daughter, Lupe, is disliked by many people because of her father’s cruelty, but she and Isabella are best friends. When a girl from their class at school is found dead, killed by someone – or something – from the Forgotten Territories, Lupe sets off to try to solve the mystery. Worried about her friend (and longing to see the Forgotten Territories for herself), Isabella disguises herself as a boy and sets out with the Governor’s search party, acting as their navigator and mapping the Forgotten Territories.
How it all begins...
From the very first lines, Kiran Millwood Hargrave makes clear to us that something is wrong in Gromera:
‘They say the day the Governor arrived, the ravens did too. All the smaller birds flew backwards into the sea, and that is why there are no songbirds on Joya.’
The songbirds leaving when the Governor arrives is an omen, a sign of something bad to come. The joyful, singing birds have all fled, and in their place are the ravens, birds which are often themselves considered an omen of death (because ravens are scavengers, meaning they eat what food they can find, which includes dead animals).
This opening also establishes the mythical elements of the story right at the start: the words ‘They say’ point to Isabella’s interest in folklore (beliefs and stories passed down from person to person), and birds flying backwards suggest something magical about the world, too. The author uses these hints of stories to hook us from the start: we immediately want to know what the truth is, to know more about Joya and the Governor.
Myths are a key theme in 'The Girl of Ink and Stars'. Isabella loves the myths of Joya, especially the ones about Arinta, a girl-warrior who stopped a fire demon called Yote destroying the island a thousand years ago. Isabella tells Lupe that the difference between a myth and a story is:
‘A myth is something that happened so long ago people like to pretend it’s not real, even when it is.’
The power of myths is often a feature of the fantasy genre. As Isabella says, myths can be a source of knowledge from a long time ago, but working out what is just a story and what has a grain of truth in it can be difficult!
Kiran Millwood Hargrave draws on several myths in this book, particularly the mythology of the Canary Islands. On Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, legend says that a demon called Guayota lives in the Teide volcano. 'The Girl of Ink and Stars' also makes reference to Greek mythology with the labyrinth called the Dédalo. ‘Dédalo’ is the Spanish version of Daedalus, the name of the architect in Greek mythology who designed the labyrinth that the minotaur lived in.
By telling us about Joya’s myths at the start of the book, the author lets us wonder how they will be important to Isabella’s adventure. Because we know the myths say there was fire demon threatening the island in the past, we suspect there might be something very magical and very dangerous in the Forgotten Territories, which both builds tension and makes us want to keep reading to know more.
Another common theme in fantasy stories is a quest. A quest is a dangerous and difficult adventure, usually trying to find something, like Isabella going into the Forgotten Territories to find Lupe. Some of the most famous and influential works in the fantasy genre are about quests, such as 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' series by J. R. R. Tolkien. Like 'The Girl of Ink and Stars', these books feature a journey across a dangerous and magical world, and a map of the fictional land, so you can follow the characters’ quest. You can see a map of Middle Earth, where The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are set, here. How did you feel reading Isabella’s adventure? Excited? Scared? Both? Do you think you were feeling the same emotions as Isabella, who narrates the story?
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s descriptive writing involves the senses and helping us share in Isabella’s experience on her adventure.
‘It was hushed in the forest. The horse-high bushes stopped sound the way water does, and the torches’ light threw everything into shadow.’
These sentences tell us about what Isabella sees – not just that there are bushes, but that they are as high as she is up on the horse she is riding – and what she hears, what the quality of sound is like in the Forgotten Territories. We get a sense of how eerie the place is, as though we are experiencing it for ourselves.
One feature of using first-person narration (the story is told by one character, in this case Isabella) is that we can only see what that character can see. This means that when Lupe goes into the Forgotten Territories, we, like Isabella, don’t know what’s happening to her and if she’s okay. It might have been interesting to hear from Lupe’s perspective, to learn more about how she feels about her father and what she finds in the Forbidden Territories. Or if we had Isabella’s father’s perspective, we could find out more about what Joya was like before the Governor arrived. But hearing only from Isabella builds tension, because we don’t know what’s happening to the characters who aren’t with her.
Isabella goes on this quest because she cares about her friend. Friendship is another important theme in this book. Kiran Millwood Hargrave shows us how important Lupe and Isabella are to one another before the adventure starts.
‘Lupe always met me by a barrel at the edge of the market square so we could walk to school together, even though it meant she had to get up almost as early as the labourers.’
The two girls love to spend time together, with Lupe caring more about seeing Isabella than sleeping. Even in a fantasy world that includes so much that is strange and frightening – an underground prison, animals fleeing the island, unknown monsters – Lupe and Isabella’s friendship is something we can understand and relate to. We care about what happens because we care about the characters.
Do you like sharing stories with your friends? Are those stories entirely made up, or do they have some truth in them, like Joya’s myths?