Review: ‘The Islands at the End of the World’ by Austin Aslan

Review: ‘The Islands at the End of the World’ by Austin AslanThe Islands at the End of the World by Austin Aslan
Series: The Islands at the End of the World #1
Genres: Action & Adventure, Dystopian, Science Fiction, Survival Stories, Young Adult
Published by Random House Children's Books on August 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover
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Right before my eyes, my beautiful islands are changing forever. And so am I ...

Sixteen-year-old Leilani loves surfing and her home in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. But she's an outsider - half white, half Hawaiian, and an epileptic.

While Lei and her father are on a visit to Oahu, a global disaster strikes. Technology and power fail, Hawaii is cut off from the world, and the islands revert to traditional ways of survival. As Lei and her dad embark on a nightmarish journey across islands to reach home and family, she learns that her epilepsy and her deep connection to Hawaii could be keys to ending the crisis before it becomes worse than anyone can imagine.

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.

You know when you can spot a book that you know you’ll love from a mile away? A book that just screams you?

That was definitely this book for me.

Let’s just take a moment to see what Tags I gave this post: Dystopian, Hawaii, Mythology, Sci-Fi, Survival Stories. 

Now, this might sound like a rather strange mix. (Now that I think about it, a similar mix of genres can be found in Jessica Khoury’s Origin.) But I just couldn’t love it more. Squee!

If I haven’t been obvious enough about it before, I am a huge fan of Sci-Fi and Dystopian. Survival Stories naturally fall into the mix, and I would rarely pass up an opportunity to read a book based in Mythology. Which leaves…

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The sibs and I feelin’ pretty happy at the top of the Kuilau Trail!

HAWAII!! (Caution: I get pretty worked up over Hawaii, haha.) My family and I had the privilege of visiting Kauai, Hawaii’s oldest island, a few years ago, and I have never been to a more beautiful or relaxed place. Hawaii is truly such a special place, from the landscape to its culture.

And honestly, why aren’t more books set in these beautiful islands?! As Aslan has so ingeniously and terrifyingly shown with his debut book, there may be no greater place to set an Apocalyptic story than the isolated islands of Hawaii. From the author on the book’s Goodreads page:

“Everybody knows what happens at the end of the world in New York and LA, but what would a global disaster mean for Islanders? 95% of Hawaii’s food is imported every day. The islands are home to 1.5 million people. If things got tough there, where would all those people go? There are no mountain ranges or Great Plains to escape to. Everyone is stuck. Hungry. No way to escape.” 

Between my visit and all the reading I did in preparation for the trip, I know a bit more about the islands than the next person — which is still not too much compared with the vast wealth of knowledge there is to know about Hawaii — and I can say that this definitely helped deepen my connection with the story. The tales of the islands’ rich mythology, their geography, and their current struggles were already somewhat familiar and dear to me, which helps to explain why I drooled over this book until I had it in my hands, and simply devoured it as fast as I could when I finally had it.

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My favorite mountain on all of Kauai.

The setting is absolutely crucial to this book, and is what really makes The Islands at the End of the World stand out in more ways than one. The idea of paradise quickly devolving into a nightmare highlights how the world could really turn upside-down so fast in the event of some sort of apocalypse.

The setting also played into a major theme in the book, which in my opinion helped make it so much more than just a survival story: Belonging. As half Hawaiian, half white (with an appearance that makes it a struggle to fit in with the locals), MC Leilani has only lived in Hawaii with her family for 3 years. Though she feels a deep connection to the island as she discovers more about her own culture and heritage, she can’t seem to fit in. Her fits of epilepsy further alienate her from others.

“Long black hair. Oval face with high cheeks. My eyes are hazel, my complexion is… too light. I’m almost as white as Dad.”

I could personally understand Leilani so well, being of mixed heritage myself. I’m half white and half Hispanic, but my appearance and Germanic last name disconnect me from any casual association with my Hispanic heritage. Though I’m not a native Spanish speaker, I’ve been learning about the language and culture for 7 years now. While I love what parts of my culture I know, I often find it hard to believe that I’ll ever truly feel like a part of the Hispanic community — which is why I felt and rooted for Leilani every step of the way.

Ridiculously beautiful Taro fields in Hanalei.

Ridiculously beautiful Taro fields in Hanalei.

Aslan’s book also grapples with the serious land dispute issues occurring in Hawaii, which I’ve been fortunate enough to have been exposed to during my 1st semester in college. Since the beginning of Hawaii’s statehood — or, it’s illegal and unwanted annexation and overthrow of local government — there has been a movement to restore land and governing rights back to Native Hawaiians, essentially recognizing it as an independent nation. So, to whom do these islands belong — the United States, or native Hawaiians? Who belongs to this category labeled as ‘Hawaiian’ when Hawaiians themselves are so mixed in heritage, and how might this split up families? Do the natural treasures of Hawaii belong only to natives, or should they be shared? It’s no simple issue, but Aslan incorporates it into his book admirably. 

I don’t want to give too much away, but this Belonging theme isn’t the only thing that makes The Islands at the End of the World more than just a survival story. As the book progresses, the mythology and Sci-fi elements begin to intertwine more closely with the plot, until they steal center stage. I really enjoyed these elements and thought that they were well-developed, even if at around the midway point I thought my head would explode (in a good way) from all the extra intensity these elements added to the already dramatic storyline.

Not only were these elements fascinating, but thanks to author-scientist Austin Aslan, they also seemed plausible. I’m going to out and admit it here that I’ve got a bit of idol-worship for the guy — one look at his biography and you might, too. The book closely mirrors his life in some aspects, and his master’s degree in tropical conservation biology from the University of Hawaii at Hilo really adds credibility to the story.

All-in-all, The Islands at the End of the World was a fast-paced, desperate story of survival that made my head spin — but also hit close to home with its setting and theme. I may or may not have shed a tear or two somewhere along the way, and I adored the father-daughter relationship in the book. That this series is set to be just a two-booker seems perfect to me, as the sequel will be able to be just as fast-paced while also expanding and wrapping up the story.


Everything you’d ever want in a Survival Story and more, thanks to its unique setting.

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