I was lucky enough to request and be approved to read an early copy of this on netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.
The Lost Soul Atlas by Zana Fraillon, cover art by ?
I’ll preface this review with a warning that it’s one of my long, rambling ones in which I try and fail to explain why I love a book so much. If you don’t have time for that, I’ll give you the short version – this book is wonderful. Go and buy it.
I was a huge fan of Zana Fraillon’s first two books – The Bone Sparrow and The Ones That Disappeared – so I was beyond excited to see she had a new book due and then to be approved to read it.
In both her previous novels, Zana uses stories and friendship to shine a light on some very difficult and important subjects (child refugees in The Bone Sparrow and child slavery and trafficking in The Ones That Disappeared).
Whilst The Lost Soul Atlas is aimed perhaps slightly younger, it too uses the power of story, imagination and friendship to tell a story of homelessness, specifically homeless children, and the corrupt system and blinkered society which fails them. And it too is absolutely brilliant.
Perhaps a little less gritty and graphic than her previous books, the book nevertheless paints a bleak picture of the dangerous world which some children are forced to live in; it tells of a hopeless situation in which these children are somehow finding hope, positivity and possibility.
Cleverly written, there is humour, joy, creativity and optimism amongst these children, but at no point is their situation treated lightly – this is no jolly survival adventure – it is quite clear how hard life is as their cynicism, mistrust and defensive behaviours demonstrate.
This book is also slightly more fantastical than the previous two. Rather than a hint at the fantastic or the simple telling of stories, here we move between reality, memories and an incredibly well-crafted fantasy world – the Afterlife to be specific.
Twig is dead. The Gods have ensured that the dead forget, living out their afterlife (so to speak) in blissful ignorance with yoga and games of bridge. But Twig doesn’t want to forget. He wants to remember, and so he strays into The Gatherer’s path and is entrusted with the task of opening the crossings between worlds once more and freeing the memories the Gods are keeping for themselves.
With an atlas, a key, a bundle of bones, a Guardian in the form of a skeletal raven and a small army of ‘stick people’ Meeples, Twig sets out on his quest and as he does we see how it was he arrived there through his unfolding memories of life and events before.
Twig and his da had lived a poor but relatively happy life sharing stories in a cramped, shared flat, but with a roof over their heads at least. Until one day, Twig goes out to see where his Da goes at night and things go wrong.
Without his Da, Twig is lucky to be taken under Flea’s wing as he joins their group of street children, The Beasts, in their makeshift shelters in The Boneyard.
Switching between the two, the book is at once an immersive fantasy quest and a tense tale of life on the streets, in which it is easy to see how strong emotions, impossible hopes, naivety and desperation can make you most vulnerable to exploitation and being drawn involuntarily but irrevocably into a dark world of corruption.
There is so much to love about this book I hardly know where to begin – from the clever use of humour (and some truly awful, so-bad-they’re-good jokes) to balance the darker side of things to Flea’s hilarious insults and Kkruk’s begrudging sidekick stance; from the use and imagery of the maps and stories (“because stories are the maps for how we can be”) to the riddles, magic and characters Twig meets on his quest; from the friendships and loyalties both strengthened and challenged to the energy and life of good times in spite of the bad; from the nod to Alice in Wonderland to the distinct feel of Pratchett, especially in the Gods, to the way folklore and family tales are threaded throughout… and so much more besides.
The characters are brilliant. Kkruk the Sentries and the librarians really put the life into The Afterlife and Twig is a very likeable main character, who your heart goes out to as he grapples with strange new worlds.
But it was Flea (and their friendship with Twig) who I loved best. Creative, caring and ever hopeful but street-wise and uncompromising in their morals and actions they were an utterly fantastic character who I’d love to have been friends with myself!
I was also pleased to see Flea’s gender questioned, commented on and left unknown without becoming an issue or having any bearing on the story.
‘So, are you a boy?’
Flea shrugs. ‘Sometimes. And sometimes I’m a girl.
And sometimes I’m both at the same time or neither.
Mostly I’m just somewhere in between. Anyway…”
The other characters were just as good. The rest of Twig’s Blood Family, for example, give away shades and hints of their back stories – enough to give them depth and difference and individual traits, and enough to see how various children can end up in such a bleak situation, but not so much that it bogs down the story.
The Hoblin meanwhile is brilliantly written as she manages to convey both real and fairytale evil and danger.
In short, I loved this book. It is, without doubt, in my top books of the year, and given that there’s still over five months to go, that’s no mean feat.
It helps of course that I love a map on a book so a whole story with maps woven through it was always going to appeal (can we please have an accompanying illustrated atlas with The Lost Soul Atlas (both book and painted), Flea’s tent maps and the rest in?!)
Punchy, unflinching and refusing to look away from the very real and heartbreaking situation on our streets, it is also a funny and wonderfully immersive fantasy. A magical tale of friendship, loyalty, suffering and hope, this is a story which will speak straight to your heart and to your imagination.