Austin Aslan’s debut YA novel The Islands at the End of the World takes us to a place we think of as paradise--Hawaii--and turns it into a nightmare.
When sixteen-year-old Leilani (Lei) and her father travel from the Big Island of Hawaii to Oahu in search of a medical cure for her epilepsy, her world rapidly falls apart: meteor strikes herald the appearance of a celestial anomaly (dubbed the “Green Orchid”) that shuts down all electrical appliances, communications, and other technologies. Desperate to return home--and rapidly running out of the medication that keeps her condition in check--Lei and her father risk looters, a military crackdown, and nationalist forces eager to use the descent into chaos to restore indigenous rule of the islands. Meanwhile Lei keeps hearing echoes of the mythological past whenever she slips into a seizure. Could the Green Orchid be an emissary from the beyond, a voyager with a message just for her? And will she and her father survive long enough to unravel its mystery and begin to put their world back together again?
Aslan’s debut is intense and inventive, expertly fusing edge-of-your-seat action-adventure with a reflective, even mystical sensibility. Lei serves as the perfect vehicle to bring these two strands together, as she struggles to reconcile past and present, the world of modern science that promises a cure to her epilepsy with her grandfather’s world of powerful gods and ancestral spirits:
My heart sighs as I listen to the rain. I’m only half Hawaiian, but I want to belong. I can feel the warmth of their akua--the Hawaiian gods and family guardians. When I’m hiking in the high forest with Dad, Kāne, the creator, is in the ohia trees, watching me. And Grandpa’s right: Pele speaks to me--not only when I’m visiting the glowing caldera of Kilauea volcano, but when I’m walking over her ropy black fields of lava, or surfing. I get light-headed and peaceful.
The island itself--it feels like home.
It’s intriguing that as modern society collapses, Lei’s identification with her Hawaiian heritage grows stronger; in powerful prose passages that depict her seizures through fractured sentences and yawning spaces on the page, Lei dreams herself into the old stories, becoming the “powerful, angry” goddess of the volcano, Pele. As she puts it: “My beautiful islands are changing forever. And so am I.” Aslan does an excellent job of capturing the voice of a teenage girl hungry to belong and slowly discovering the strength to fight for herself, her family, and her home.
Islands has a few rough spots: the narrative bogs down a bit in its middle section, when Lei and her father are stuck in a refugee camp, and there are moments where Aslan relies too heavily on dialogue to advance the action (a problem I suffer from myself, so I know whereof I speak). But these are minor issues. At once a thrilling story of survival, a touching tale of father-daughter bonding against impossible odds, and an eye-opening journey into the history and mythology of Hawaii, The Islands at the End of the World introduces a new and deeply original voice to the world of YA literature.