Your Humble Blogger has not written enough about Frances Hardinge, who is one of the greatest novelists working in YA/specfic right now. If y’all are already big fans of her work, then carry on. If not, I want to urge you to get to it. I have the sense that she isn’t very prominent in the US, and that’s just depressingly wrong.
I read Fly-by-Night almost ten years ago, and I wrote a kind of dismissive note that doesn’t indicate how good I thought the book was. It’s an excellent book. I particularly liked its politics, which were staunchly anti-aristo in a milieu that so often succumbs to the romance of Dukes and Countesses, but it’s also just a terrific adventure. I reread it at some point when I wasn’t blogging, and appreciated it even more, actually.
I wrote in more detail about the experience of reading The Lost Conspiracy (aka Gullstruck Island) but that led me to write about the flaws I think are in the book’s construction more than what she does well. It’s a really good book, probably as good as any I’ve read in the last few years. A book with real thump, if you know what I mean. One that stuck with me—not so much the details of the book but the experience of reading it, the slowly gathering excitement and the difficulty of setting it aside, the surprises as what I thought I had identified as the major themes yielded ground to new themes, casting new light on what I had read before.
Then I read The Lie Tree, which was the big award-winner, and, well, it was fine and all, I mean, quite good, but not as much to my taste as either of the others. I think the book may have hit awards juries in the right place: the speculative elements are touches in a naturalistically portrayed historical setting. The repression of women and minorities, the consequences of greed and short-sightedness, the potentiality of courage and resistance—those are all played out in our actual past, far enough away not to be too threatening (or specific) but not too imaginative. Also: evocatively creepy scenes that don’t rely on much dialogue are all literary’n’stuff, right? Anyway, it’s a fine book, which I recommended to the Perfect Non-Reader of this Tohu Bohu, but it wasn’t quite my cup of tea. I mean, I liked it enough to be happy that Ms. Hardinge won awards for it, and enough to encourage me to continue reading her stuff, but it wasn’t grab-you-by-the-lapels great for me.
I’ll say another thing about reading those three in the order I did: both The Lost Conspiracy and Fly-by-Night begin with their protagonist in a rural village home that they don’t much like; both take her to a Big City where she interacts with Important People such as she would never encounter in the village where she grew up. It’s not an unusual trope, mind you, but it’s a similarity that isn’t shared by The Lie Tree, in which our protagonist is, yes, out of the place where she grew up, but in this one she has been (at the start of the book, if I remember correctly) taken from the mainland to a small village, the reverse of what the journey in the other books. She’s a child of privilege: she’s an affluent white child in Victorian England who, yes, faces the limitations of that privilege particularly as a female, but also enjoys a certain security of belonging. By contrast, the protagonist of Fly-by-Night is an impoverished peasant, while that of The Lost Conspiracy is living under colonial occupation and is part of an ethnic/religious minority among the occupied people. I’m not saying that Ms. Hardinge ought not to have written books that are different one to another, just that some of the differences that I might not have noticed at the time of reading might have contributed the difference in how much I enjoyed the books, as well as how much awards juries enjoyed them.
OK, all of that was a build up to the Hardinge book I read most recently: A Face Like Glass.
It’s a wonderful book. From the first page, I loved it, and I kept loving it through the whole book, loving it differently in different places. Like The Lost Conspiracy, some themes emerge midway through the book that were not obviously going to emerge, and the book is all the better for it. It has all of the imaginative sparkle and sensawonda I could possibly want, and there are shivers and scares and scars as well. I was genuinely surprised by the plot not just once but several times, and I found myself actually caring how it turned out.
The protagonist, again, is brought up in relative poverty and isolation before going to The City and interacting with Important People, only this girl is brought up in the cheese mines and goes into an underground city-labyrinth that might just be alive, and the Important People she interacts with include wine magicians, face artists and mad mapmakers, not to mention the Kleptomancer. Did I mention the Kleptomancer? This is a book with a Kleptomancer. This is why I like it better than The Lie Tree, and why award-juries do not.
Also, important themes of the three Hardinge books I like more than I like The Lie Tree include: do not trust any member of the hereditary aristocracy, however personally well-meaning; wealth is always obtained at the expense of the impoverished, and the more invisible the impoverished are the worse their conditions will be; monsters are everywhere but can be vanquished, even (sometimes) accidentally; powerless people are powerful together. Those are things, for me, that it’s easier to read and learn in a fantasy than in a historical novel. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, but frankly I think with a lot of historical novels, whether written as historical novels or just aged into historitage, I tend to fall in to a complacent well, people were certainly silly back then, weren’t they mode, which I don’t tend to feel in a more outlandish fantasy.
But I didn’t actually mean to focus on my disagreement with the awards folks; people are different, one to another, and like different things, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun. I meant to focus on how unbelievably terrific Frances Hardinge’s books are, and also how she has become a bit of a Big Deal in her native land, and yet I don’t think she’s a Big Deal here in the US, somehow. I don’t know why that is. Her stuff isn’t super Anglo-centric, and if it were, it wouldn’t be more so than Neil Gaiman’s or Terry Pratchett’s. Yes, there’s the stuff about the hereditary aristocracy, but, um, we read plenty of stuff about Dukes and Countesses.
Or maybe I’m wrong, and Ms. Hardinge is a Big Deal here, as big as, oh, Shannon Hale or Gail Carson Levine or John Flanagan or someone. And nothing against those writers! They’re terrific. And are later in their careers and have more books already published and whatnot, yeah. Or as big a deal as Jessica Day George or Paolo Bacigalupi or Garth Nix, who are also terrific. I think right now, I’d say I like Ms. Hardinge’s books (particularly A Face Like Glass) more than those of any of those terrific writers, and look forward to reading another as much as any writer going.
That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,