Jun. 6th, 2017

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I'd been meaning to try Frances Hardinge's books for ages*, having heard many good things about them from friends. Having now read one, I'm sorry I put it off for so long, as I thought Fly By Night (her first novel) was terrific fun, reminiscent of Joan Aiken, Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman but also very much its own unique, original self.

In terms of genre, I'd describe Fly By Night as historical fantasy (Hardinge herself describes it as "a yarn" in her afterword), by which I mean that it's set in a completely imagined world whose geography, history and belief systems bear no relation to ours, but whose setting nevertheless bears more than a passing resemblence to an actual period of Earth history; in this case, England in around the turn of the eighteenth century, complete with frills and wigs and a difficult period of repression in the not-too-distant past. It's the story of twelve-year-old orphan Mosca Mye, who runs away from home in the company of a con-man (the wonderfully named Eponymous Clent - the naming of characters is a particular joy) and a homicidal goose and finds herself caught up in a complex web of murder, treachery and intrigue. The plot twists and turns so much that I found it absolutely impossible to even guess at what was coming next or whether characters would turn out to be good, bad or neutral, and there were a whole host of colourful and entertaining supporting characters. In lesser hands, I think it could easily have ended up being annoyingly whimsical or too over-the-top to take seriously, and it's a sign of Hardinge's skill as a writer that it avoids this.

It's the story of Mosca's first independent steps in the world (and I love that, unlike the protagonists of a lot of YA novels, she's allowed to make some pretty serious mistakes and atone for them, but without it ever feeling as if the mistake could be forgotten). It's a critique of religious fundamentalism that feels very relevant now, though it's obviously based on Puritanism and the aftermath of the English Civil War. And it's also a book about truth and lies and the power of words: Mosca is driven by a love of words and a desire for books, in a world where publications are tightly controlled, and this love of words is also reflected in the wonderfully wordy and playful style of the writing. I liked this a lot, and will definitely be seeking out more of Hardinge's work.

*I was surprised to notice that Fly By Night was first published in 2005, which means it's even longer than I thought.

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