The Girl of Ink and Stars (2016; published in the U.S. as The Cartographer’s Daughter) is Kiran Millwood Hargrave‘s debut novel. It tells the story of Isabella, a girl of 13, who lives with her father (Da) and her chicken (Miss La) on the island of Joya. Though Da was once a cartographer who travelled the globe making maps, Joya is now under the control of the despotic Governor Adori and all travel is forbidden. What’s more, only part of the island is accessible while the “Forbidden Territories” are cut-off by forest and populated by the “banished”. Isabella and her Da can only connect to the outside world through the exquisite maps for which they share a passion, passed down from father to daughter.
One day, Isabella’s life is thrown into adventure when a girl in her class is found murdered in the Governor’s orchard. After a blazing row Isabella’s best friend, Lupe (the Governor’s daughter), takes off into the Forbidden Territories to find the killer. As the town is plunged into chaos and Da is taken away by the Governor’s men, it’s up to Isabella to find her friend, make amends and explore a much bigger mystery that lies at the very heart of the island.
What follows is an adventure dusted with myth and magic as Isabella joins the Governor’s men on an expedition into the Forbidden Territories. It soon becomes clear that there is something very wrong with the island and Isabella begins to suspect that the ancient stories her Da has always told her could hold the key to the mystery.
There is plenty of charm to A Girl of Ink and Stars. The pace is perky and the focus on maps and star-navigation provides a thread that is weaved pleasingly throughout the story as Isabella navigates her way across the island. The mysteries pile upon each other, as they should, culminating in a fiery finale.
On the down-side, the story doesn’t contain the detail or the emotional maturity that some stories for young readers manage to possess. We are told that most of the characters have complicated back-stories, including Isabella herself, who has lost both her mother and brother to disease. These human stories aren’t explored in any depth which leaves all of the characters a little hollow. I struggled to believe in Isabella’s motivations or those of her friend Lupe.
This simplicity extends to the plot which suffers, in many parts, from a lack of explanation. We are briefly told about the “banished” people who live in the other parts of the island but not why they were banished or what makes them different. At one point Isabella’s friend Pablo tells her that “adventures aren’t for girls” and indeed, Isabella has to disguise herself as a boy to have her adventure, but we don’t get an insight into why this is, or what kind of society exists on Joya.
The positive side of this simplicity is that it serves to place the adventure at the very heart of the story. Isabella picks herself up again and again in the face of dastardly men and terrifying beasts and danger lurks in every corner. Like any good adventure story The Girl of Ink and Stars is an enjoyable read — I only wish there was a bit more to it.