Today, I'm reviewing the fabulous The Islands at the End of the World by Austin Aslan. It's both a debut novel and a post-apocalyptic novel, which absolutely enthralled me while reading it.
(Seriously guys - I couldn't stop reading!) I can't wait all of you to read this book too.
Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: August 5th 2014 by Wendy Lamb Books (first published August 1st 2014)
Format read: E-ARC via Edelweiss
Austin Aslan has written a haunting, heart-pounding tale of a young girl and her father, who struggle to find their way home in a rapidly disintegrating island paradise.
A powerful story enriched by fascinating elements of Hawaiian ecology, culture, and warfare, this captivating and dramatic debut from Austin Aslan is the first of two novels. The author has a master’s degree in tropical conservation biology from the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Now that I've actually reading it, I can say with absolute certainty that this is a remarkable debut. In an already very crowded field of post-apocalyptic novels, The Islands at the End of the World's hauntingly beautiful story and unique heroine will make it stand out for all readers.
Things that worked:
Sixteen-year-old Leilani or "Lei" has lived on the big island of Hawaii near Hilo, for the last three years. Her father isn't native to the island, but her mother and maternal grandfather are, and Lei has picked up a considerable amount of local knowledge from them, including her love of Hawaiian culture.
Aslan does a wonderful job of writing Leilani's voice, showing her youthful energy and love for her life on the big island, while also making subtle observations through her eyes on why life in paradise isn't always perfect.
Lei is especially adept at realizing her physical differences and how it relates to her life on the island, including the fact that she will never be fully accepted by the native islanders. (More on this later). She's also very accepting of the fact that her epilepsy is a tough situation for her to handle, but she doesn't limit it from trying hobbies like surfing. She's smart and pragmatic, and readers will undoubtedly admire her immediately.
Like an intricately plotted disaster movie - yes, yes. I know that's kind of an oxymoron, but it's actually an apt comparison in this case! - Aslan gradually begins setting up the end of the world.
He begins by dropping a few sentences here and there at the start of the novel about canceled political meetings and unusual weather, which only begins to build up the tension as Lei and her father (and the reader) begin to realize that things are seriously escalating in the wrong direction.
By the time it becomes apparent that the world has transformed into a place beyond anything the characters recognize, there's no sense of surprise or shock, just a sense of "what now?"
On that note...
The cultural issues:
Even as the world is on the verge of ending, Aslan doesn't hesitate from integrating some significant cultural issues into the storyline.
I was very, very struck by his frank recognition of the fact that community outsiders like Lei's father would be the first to be attacked and killed in an environment where it's everyone for themselves. As difficult as it might be for readers to witness some of these scenarios through Lei's eyes, it's also good impetus for frank discussions on how people react in moments of stress, and also discussions about cultural divides.
Even though Lei's epilepsy is the driving force for why Lei and her father leave Hilo in the first place, and is also the motivating factor between several side storylines, Aslan never lets it define Lei in an overwhelming way.
He creates a relationship between Lei's medical condition and Lei's overall personality in a way where we see how she has been limited by the condition, but we also acknowledge her strength and maturity in dealing with something that is far beyond her years - e.g. her decision to use her condition to try and improve her circumstances at a juncture int he novel.
I think that this is an important factor for readers, especially for parents and educators who are looking for books that show all the facets of a character who has to deal with a medical condition like this.
The focus on familial love vs. romantic love:
One of my biggest pet peeves about YA apocalyptic novels, is when characters hook up hours or days after meeting each other in the midst of overwhelming danger. You're outrunning aliens/ghosts/evil spider creatures/something world-ending. When do you have time to kiss and get to know a person?
Which is why I love the fact that Aslan bucks that trend, and focuses on familial love instead. While Lei definitely comes across some cute guys during the course of her journey, Aslan only briefly touches on those interactions as a reminder that yes, Lei still has the innocence of a teenaged girl and there's still hope for the future.
Otherwise, Aslan primarily focuses on the love that Lei and her father feel for their other members of the family, and how desperate they are to get back to them. There's a definite sense of growth as Lei realizes the lengths that her father is willing to go to in the hopes of reuniting the family, and it both enhances and sharpens their family dynamic.
Without giving any spoilers away, Aslan has written the type of ending that ties together all of the loose ends of the story nicely, while also leaving readers definitely wanting more. There's a certain degree of maturity to the ending, which I think will be appreciated.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
I'll be honest, I was a little confused about the origins of the green clouds. Aslan does a great job of making the clouds seem omnipresent and vaguely menacing, but the effect was a little lost on me as the story progressed.
This might be one of those situations where I was just so immersed in Lei's journey, a lot of the secondary details fell to the wayside for me. I'm definitely going to have to reread the book and see if I have a different experience the second time around.
Both Lei's desperate journey to return home while dealing with her epilepsy, and her recognition that even paradise can't protect her from the harsh realities of the outside world, will absolutely move readers and keep them thinking what they would do in a similar situation. This is very much an unusually beautifully post-apocalpytic tale with a lot of heart, and will definitely stand out from the other tales of the genre.
I highly recommend this book for YA fans of all ages, but especially for educators and parents who are looking for books with characters who deal with personal health problems in a positive and constructive way. Even though Lei will likely to be the first to admit that it really, really sucks having epilepsy, her handling of her medical condition shows a maturity and profundity which I think will be admired by all.
As for me, Austin Aslan has become of my favorite new debut authors. I'm going to be waited for The Girl at the Center of the World with bated breath, and in the mean time, I'll definitely be shouting from the rooftops to everyone I know, about The Islands at the End of the World.
About the author:
Austin Aslan was inspired to write his debut novel, The Islands at the End of the World, while living on the Big Island of Hawaii. He earned a master’s degree in tropical conservation biology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. His research on rare Hawaiian plants located on the high slopes of Mauna Loa won him a pair of destroyed hiking boots, a tattered rain jacket, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
He lives outside Tucson, Arizona, deep in the Sonoran Desert, where he pets scorpions and hugs saguaro cacti with his high-school-sweetheart wife and their two young children. Austin is pursuing a PhD in geography at the University of Arizona and thinking up new stories while conducting ecosystem resilience research atop the Peruvian Andes. He continues to write fiction and looks forward to the publication of this novel’s sequel, The Girl at the Center of the World.