So, the last time I wrote about the works of Frances Hardinge, I described her as one of the greatest novelists working in YA/specfic right now. More recently, I have described her as my favorite writer currently working in any field. In the last couple of months, I’ve read two more of her books, each absolutely terrific.
Before I talk about the books (A Skinful of Shadows and Fly Trap, aka Twilight Robbery) with the spoilers I tend to scatter through these notes, I will repeat my assessment of the recurring themes I picked out from reading four previous books by Ms. Hardinge:
- 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.
These are excellent themes.
Skinful develops the anti-aristocracy theme even further and more powerfully: the hereditary privilege is made into a metaphor, wherein the aristos are immortals who eat the souls of peasants and caretake their own ghosts. They are mad, powerful, insulated and alien, and for the first time in one of her books that I have read, our protagonist is one of them. Or at least sort of—she’s an illegitimate child, unaware of her bloodline, and the only way for her to inherit, in any sense, would destroy her soul and leave only her body to both possess and be possessed by the family estate. It’s wonderful. It’s vicious, and nasty, and clear, and I wish there were lots of other great writers of specfic who were doing as good a job eviscerating the hereditary aristocracy. Er, in the books, I mean. Fictitiously. No actual aristos were eviscerated in the writing of this novel, that I’m aware of.
I’ll add that (if for some reason you haven’t read the book and are still reading this note despite the spoilers) the book isn’t good because of Ms. Hardinge’s hatred for the aristocracy. It’s a terrific book and it’s a vicious attack on a class that deserves it. Or perhaps I should say, that aspect is only one of the many terrific things about the book—it’s genuinely spooky in places, genuinely funny in others, unpredictable on a plot level, and contains wonderful prose and pretty good dialogue. It’s also set in the English Civil War, which is a surprisingly underutilized bit of historical setting for fantasy novels, I think. So that’s all right.
Except that, somehow, I didn’t enjoy the historical setting, as well-done as it was, as much as I have enjoyed her more fantastical works. If I were to rank her novels by my preference (Why? Why would I do that?) I would put it second-to-last among the six I’ve read, ahead of only The Lie Tree, the other one set in a historically-reasonable version of our world. They are both terrific books, mind you. But in addition to all the other stuff that I love about her novels, Fly Trap (as I will call it because that’s what’s on the cover of my copy) has absolutely magnificent, bizarre and outrageous world-building. Wacky, even. The town of Toll—or, rather, the two towns of Toll-by-Day and Toll-by-Night—is an achievement on the par of the underground metropolis in A Face Like Glass.
In Fly Trap, by the way, the hereditary aristocracy is almost entirely offstage, as Ms. Hardinge has a new metaphor, in which it is not to whom a person was born that indicates the undeserved benefits or punishments but at what time of day. It’s almost nastier than the ghouls of Skinful, but a lot funnier. It’s got a lot of L. Frank Baum, now that I think about it. Not Skinful, just Fly Trap and the previous book in the series, Fly by Night. Although even in those books, the scary stuff is pretty serious, much scarier than anything in Oz or Mo.
One more thing about her books—I found both and Skinful and Lie Tree as well as The Lost Conspiracy to be slow going at first. Not bad, but slowish and a bit difficult to get my teeth stuck in. Just a warning: the payoff is substantial, but not immediate. Ms. Hardinge, it seems to me, takes care to establish her protagonist’s context before ripping her out of it, and that’s not a bad thing for the book as a whole, but requires that the reader trust that it will be all worthwhile. So far, for me, it has been. I don’t remember having trouble getting in to Fly by Night, when I would have had no Author Points to draw on, and Fly Trap is a sequel, which is something else altogether. Although, come to think of it, even there, she doesn’t bring us to Toll for quite a few chapters. And I adore the introductory bit of Glass, absolutely adored it. But that's the only one I loved from chapter one; the others had to work on me more slowly.
Which is good, because there are those other two novels of hers that I haven't read, because I look at them and think ugh, this one just isn't for me. So I'm hoping those two are just working even more slowly. Still, I've read six books out of eight, loved four of them and liked two, which is pretty damn' good.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,