The Lost Conspiracy
by Frances Hardinge
Sometimes, as a writer, when I read a book filled with a compelling plot, an inventive and immersive world, and engaging characters, I’m inspired to create on my own. The story pulls me along, and the second I finish reading, I have to write.
That didn’t happen with this book.
Hardinge created such a lush world with so much wonder and grit, I despair of ever putting together a fictional setting nearly so fulfilling. I could swim in this world, it’s so well constructed.
It’s going to be hard to write a full review without giving numerous spoilers. I picked up this volume a few years ago, but the cover description was… bland at best. Though Hardinge had written the excellent Fly by Night and I hungered for her to write another story, this plot did not engage me, based on what was written on the cover. I know now why it was so bland: whoever wrote the cover didn’t want to give anything away.
Long story short: This story is amazing, the setting expanding, the plot complex yet easy to follow. From here on in, there will be some spoilers. I’ll try to keep them as small as possible, but that’s nearly impossible with this book.
The island of Gullstruck boasts a select few who are Lost. These gifts to humanity can send their individual senses in as many directions as they would like. These Lost provide communication for the island. They search out brigands. They sniff out dissidents. Without them, society would collapse.
When the settlers first came to Gullstruck, they encountered many native tribes. None were like the Lace, though. The Lace never stop smiling, even when they kill you. Now, hundreds of years later, the Lace are the lowest of the low. They were almost wiped out when the settlers struck back at them for their crimes.
Except, for the first time since the settlers first arrived, the Lace have a Lost of their own. The Lady Arilou welcomes all and tells them what they need to know. The Lady Arilou never learned human speech well, though. She was so often out of her body she never gained the ability to speak. Her attendant, her little sister Hathin, serves as her voice.
The Lace have a secret, though. Arilou is not a Lost. She is, in their words, an imbecile. At young childhood, both Lost and imbeciles act about the same, so no one ever knew for certain what Arilou was until the word had gotten out that the Lace, at the village of the Hollow Beasts, had a Lost. Hathin, little, unnoticed Hathin, can read the weather and body language so well she’s been able to fool anyone visiting, translating her sister’s moans and groans into words of wisdom.
And now a Lost Inspector is coming to visit to test the limits of Lady Arilou’s abilities. If Hathin succeeds in fooling him, it will mean a constant pushing and a continuation of the lie until they die. If Hathin fails, at best, their village will starve as the rest of the island turns its back on them. It could mean their extinction as a people.
The plot seems pretty simple, really, from this write-up. Hardinge writes such compelling characters, though, that at the beginning you don’t notice. She does something really neat, though: As soon as that plot is set up, we go a few chapters, and then Hardinge pulls the carpet out from under the reader and goes a completely different direction. And then she does it again.
A novel with so many twists and turns might lose cohesion; The Lost Conspiracy not only keeps it all together, but excels at tying the disparate threads together in a monumental and unexpected climax.
Hardinge keeps most of the narrative focused in a limited third-person, following Hathin. She balances with scattered scenes that get the reader into the head of several others, fleshing out not only the world, but making the villains both totally alien and believable.
The setting reminded me quite a bit of what I know of the Polynesian Islands as well as Jamaica. Hardinge (wisely, in my opinion) adds a note up front that while she did a lot of research into indigenous tribes and so on, the various tribes of Gullstruck all come from her own imagination. Her research shows, though. Within twenty pages, I not only felt immersed in the world, but I had a great feel for its history. The only book that comes close, to my memory, is Fire Bringer by David Clement-Davies. There, the author sets up and tears down a world in less than fifty pages, but when that world comes burning down, I felt all the weight. (That’s another book I also highly recommend.) Hardinge succeeds in quite a similar way here.
So, yes, go read this book. It’s now been a few days since I finished reading it, and I want to start setting up a world both as alien and relatable as what she’s done. So I guess my very sad opening paragraph isn’t quite true. Hardinge has challenged me to grow as a writer.
I hope I can live up to that challenge.