Come, children, and meet the souls of the dead

One of Emily Gravett's illustrations to Frances Hardinge's new children's novel
One of Emily Gravett's illustrations to Frances Hardinge's new children's novel - Emily Gravett

At first glance, Island of Whispers looks like a picture book. But don’t be misled, for Frances Hardinge’s fabulously eerie stories are not the sort of thing that you read to the very young. In Gullstruck Island (2009), birds unravel people’s souls; The Lie Tree (2015), a Victorian murder story, features a tree that feeds on whispered lies. Hardinge is known for her dark, eccentric plots, and Island of Whispers, a short, illustrated fantasy which is aimed at readers of 12-plus, is no exception.

The story is set on the “ragged island” of Merlank, where the souls of the Dead pose a mortal threat to anyone with whom they come into contact. “Even the sight of them could kill. Anyone unlucky enough to meet the Dead face-to-face and look into their eyes sickened afterwards or died immediately.” To avoid such consequences, all Merlank’s ghosts must be taken away by the Ferryman to the island of the Broken Tower. It’s a treacherous job: “You had to keep your guard up when ferrying the Dead… Curiosity might drag your gaze to them for one fatal glance.”

But the Ferryman dies, and it falls to his teenage son Milo to take his father’s soul across the water on his beloved boat, Evening Mare, with its phantom-like figurehead of a grey horse. To Milo’s father, their ship was “not a nightmare… Nor yet a daydream. In between and half awake. A dusk-slider. A twilight voyager, sailing the seam between worlds.”

As Milo sets sail with his cargo of dead passengers, who include the 14-year-old daughter of the grieving Lord of Merlank, he finds more adventure than he had bargained for. Can he see off swarms of deathly moths, headless birds and Merlank’s sinister magicians, and ensure that all his ghosts can stay happily ever after on the island of the Broken Tower?

Hardinge first hit the headlines in 2015 when The Lie Tree won the Costa Book of the Year award; it was only the second time in the prize’s 46-year history that a children’s book had outdone its adult competitors. But whatever her target audience, Hardinge never talks down to the reader. The brevity of Island of Whispers, which is told in barely 100 pages, coupled with its swift, simple prose, will make it appeal to a wider range of reading abilities than some of her denser, 500-page fantasies such as A Skinful of Shadows (2018) or Unravaller (2022). And the stunning illustrations by Emily Gravett cleverly capture the narrative’s haunting mood.

Yet the book is deceptively multi-layered, combining a teenage coming-of-age story with elements of high fantasy, and difficult themes of death and bereavement. Just don’t try it on the under-fives.

Island of Whispers is published by Two Hoots at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books