Review: The Islands at the End of the World

After allowing this book to languish for several months atop my seemingly interminable to-read list, I finally scored a copy at the local library. I began reading with excitement: the premise intrigued me, and initial reviews sounded promising. Perhaps these high expectations affected my judgement. During our evening co-reading session, my Laddie asked how the book was.

“It’s…adequate,” I said, grasping for an adjective that captured my feelings. When he laughed, I tried to elaborate. “I mean, it’s decent. There’s no outstanding issues with the story or the writing. It’s just not as good as it could be.”

Austin Aslan’s novel introduces us to Leilani, a Hawaiian teenager struggling to live a normal life despite her epilepsy. When a clinical trial offers hope of improving her condition, Leilani and her father travel to a hospital on the Big Island to participate. But disaster strikes. Mysterious green lights appear in the sky; electrical and communications systems across the world go on the fritz; panic quickly reduces the laid-back beach community to chaos. Stranded, Leilani and her father must find a way home.

Leilani is likable enough as a heroine, but I never felt really engaged with her. She doesn’t exhibit the kinds of flaws that memorable characters usually possess. Aside from embracing a plot-critical side effect of her epilepsy, the story doesn’t force her to overcome any tremendous challenges or discover personal strengths. Her relationship with her father is sweet, but their bond is never truly tested. Come martial law or nuclear meltdown, they never seem in conflict with one another.

This proves problematic because they are the only two characters readers ever really get to know. Other people drift in and out of the storyline without much attachment, and the conflict is all external—fighting for survival is a fine motive, but nameless characters shooting at each other or stealing food isn’t going to keep me reading late into the night. I need character drama, and in this story it’s lukewarm at best. Towards the end, Aslan tosses out a few intriguing hints about bad history between Leilani’s grandfather and a potential antagonist, but never explains (presumably leaving himself material for the companion novel).

The science fiction aspect of the book is highly imaginative. Unfortunately, there’s little revealed about it until the last few chapters, which culminate rather predictably. Most of the book concerns the collapse of civilization on the islands. I found the depiction alarmingly believable—Aslan has a deft mind for dystopia—but without a stronger affinity for the characters, the crumbling world never became as immersive as I’d hoped. The prose is solid, written in an appropriate style for young adult audiences. I enjoyed how Aslan wove Hawaiian folklore and mythology into the story.

Overall, it’s a competent debut. If I’d read it at age fifteen, I probably would have loved it, but maturing as a reader/writer has (sadly) made me more critical. Leilani’s story didn’t compel me to pick up the sequel immediately; however, Aslan shows promise as an author. He has some fresh ideas, and I look forward to seeing what he writes in the future.

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