I believe that reading the right book can be a transformative experience. As a mother, former longtime bookseller and ardent reader of children's literature, I want to help kids start their reading journey on the right path. Insightful reviews and excellent suggestions of similar titles will ensure that readers are never without a good book in hand. My new job as an assistant to a literary agent is helping me to hone my critical skills and bring you the very best of the best in kid's books.
I once heard a classical musician being interviewed. He was asked what time period he would most like to live in and he replied the fifteenth century because it must have been such a quiet time that any kind of music or singing was very special, revered, remembered, held in high regard and not so common that it could be referred to as pollution, like the chaotic hum of life we live with these days. Mosca Mye, the young heroine of Fly By Night lives in a time when enchanting, beautiful words, printed or otherwise, not music, are scarce, revered, remembered, held in high regard and, above all else, feared. In her debut novel, Frances Hardingehas created a work of alternative historical fiction that is as magical as any fantasy novel I have read. Instead of creating languages and names for new creatures, places and people as Tolkein or other great fantasy writers have done, Harding takes the English language and shakes it until all of the beautiful, rarely spoken words like "corricle," "dovecote," "periwig" and "whelkmaid" fall out on to the page. Then she mixes up these delicately delicious words with evocative names like Vocado Avourlace, Eponymous Clent, Linden Kholrabi and Aramai Goshawk. Reading this book is like waking up in a dream - everything seems familiar, but when people start talking and action begins, you realize that you don't quite know what anyone is saying or doing. That isn't to say in any way that this book is unreadable or difficult to understand, but that it has a poetic rhythm of its own that requires slipping into. This book is compelling and hard to put down, whether you are following the plot or not. However, this is also a book that I am passionate about but have yet to find the just the right child who would both meet the challenge of and be likely to enjoy this unique book.
In the world of the Fractured Realm, a kingdom without a king and long divided, guilds run the government, if it could be called that. The two most powerful guilds control the printed word and the locks on the doors. The Company of Stationers, headed by the papery Mabwick Toke, oversees all the printing presses in the realm and therefore has say over all books and things related to reading - such as education. The Company of Locksmiths, lead by Aramai Goshawk, is the guild of key and lock makers. No door can be locked against them and they are frighteningly powerful because of this. Quillam Mye, father of main character Mosca Mye, was a Stationer. Living in a semi-self-imposed exile from the capitol of Mandelion, Quillam takes ill and dies, leaving Mosca to be raised by her dull aunt and uncle. The inhabitants of the grubby, damp little town of Chough (pronounced Chuff), where Quillam and Mosca are living, burns every book in his library after his death. "Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brains on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad." That's just a crumb of the fantastic writing that Hardinge has on display in this book.
However, Quillam taught his daughter Mosca to read and she yearns for words, for years she has been, "buying them from peddlers and carving them secretly onto bits of bark so I wouldn't forget them..." This is enough to prompt her to sneak out of her aunt and uncle's home and accidentally burn down their mill as she steals the magistrate's keys in order to free Eponymous Clent, a man with such a way with words (and such a public craving them) that he charmed money from widows and goods from merchants with his elaborate stories. Mosca offers to free him if he will take her, and her ferocious goose, Saracen, with him. After some thought, Clent agrees and the two make their way to Mandelion. From there begins a story of intrigue - spies, contraband broadsheets, murder, movable secret schools, a floating illegal printing press, crocodile watch-dogs and the Honeycomb Court of Lady Tamarind, sister of the pixilated Duke Vocado Avourlace who mourns the end of his romance with the twin exiled princesses, Meriel and Peri. The Duke spends all of the kingdom's money on duplicate shrines to them. Mosca and Clent, who is working as a spy for the Stationers in an effort to find the illegal printing press, assist Lady Tamarind as she is about to be robbed by the highwayman Captain Blythe. In return for their safety, Clent agrees to write him a chapbook that will ensure his fame - be it earned or not and Lady Tamarind agrees to give Clent a letter of introduction into society.
Once in the city of Mandelion, after they have traveled in a barge filled with the stolen, black market cargo of statues of the Beloved, Mosca and Clent take lodging in a Marriage House run by the affable Bockerby and his daughter, The Cakes, the nuptials cake maker. Mosca, looking for the "ragged school" her father promised to send her to, a school that she has been dreaming of, instead finds a pile of rubble and the roving school taught by Hopewood Petrellis. While following Petrellis to his floating coffee house the Laurel Bower, with its crested kites flying high above to signal its location on the river Slye, Mosca runs into Partridge, the captain of the barge they traveled on - and left Saracen on - that is now being held hostage by the goose. In an effort to escape Partidge, Mosa is literally taken under the wing/cape of Linden Kholrabi, confidant of Lady Tamarind. With every new person Mosca meets, she finds she must question their intentions and their honesty. She is often drawn in by words of kindness or the gauzy lace of a lady's dress only to find all is not what it seems. Mosca retrieves Saracen from the barge only to find herself knee deep in rags and ink as she stumbles upon the illegal printing press and finds incendiary words printed all over her arms, legs and dress.
The divisions amongst the people, guilds and nobility of the Fractured Realm are both political and religious. One of Hardinge's most amazing feats in this book is the creation of a religion that accounts for the ten bloodiest years in the time of the Realm. Much like the Catholic saints, Hardinge has created a world of holy people that have amazing names and a protective quality for each day of the year. They are referred to as the Beloved. For every day day there is a different Beloved and some believe there is even a different religion that accompanies each Beloved. Children are named after the Beloved associated with their birthday. The prelude toFly By Night begins with the naming of Mosca. The nursemaid was born on a day sacred to "Cramflick, She Who Keeps the Vegetables of the Garden Crisp," and thus was given the name Celery. Celery wants Quillam to fudge the infant's time of birth by halh an hour so that she can be born on the day of Goodman Boniface and be a child of the sun with a name like Aurora or Solina. But, she has been born on the day of Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps the Flies Out of Jams and Butter Churns and thus she is named Mosca, which is Italian for fly. The Beloved have shrines everywhere and are worshipped openly, but this wasn't always so. Once, every church was built with a hole high on one wall which was fitted with a heart-shaped birdcage and filled with newly captured birds. "The throb of their wings gave the Heart a beat to remind people of the Consequence." This came about after someone saw the heart of a Beloved statue beat three times, signaling that all religions should become one. The unifying force that joined the Beloved together was then known as the Consequence. The priests who captured the birds were then known as the Birdcatchers and they became the custodians of the sacred texts, spending all their time gazing in the White Heart of the Consequence, eventually, inevitably, turning fanatical. They spread their beliefs all over the country since they, along with the Stationers Guild had control of the printing presses. The Birdcatchers began doing away with the Beloved and eventually the worshippers themselves, in an effort to control the population. After ten years, though, the population rose up against them and rid the country of the Birdcatchers, burning all their books and returning control of the printing presses to the Stationers alone. The people became suspicious of the printed word and happy to live without it. This level of detail and thought in a children's book is amazing. Hardinge's imagination is boundless and I am happy to follow it as far as she can take it.
I realize that this is a very long review, but I feel that leaving out even one of the many brilliantly diverse plot details is a mistake. The reviews of this book by Publisher's Weekly, School Library Journal and others were woefully short and missing out on all of the wonderous details Hardinge packs into the pages. I also have to reveal that I originally listened to this as an audio book read by Jill Tanner who has a British accent. This may account for the attention I paid to the language of the book, as well as my love of it. I think this may be a book that is difficult to begin - neither Mosca nor Clent are likable characters initially. But, Saracen, a word which refers to anyone in the middle ages who was Muslim, is extremely likable and I did not have the chance to mention one of his greatest scenes, which takes place in the fighting pit of the Gray Mastiff in Mandelion. If you have reached this point, I thank you whole heartedly for sticking with this review. And now, I beg you to read this book and then go out and find a child who you think will enjoy reading it also. This is what good, really good, well written, imaginatively thought literature is. If Hardinge had thrown in a wizard or a dragon, maybe more people (in America) might have read this book. Even with its cover art by Brett Helquist of the Series of Unfortunate Events fame, Fly By Nighthas fallen through the cracks here. But, it lives on in England, even winning Hardinge a prestigious first novel award. Her second book Well Witched, completely different from Fly By Night, was released here in May of 2008. Hardinge's third book, Gullstruck Island, known as The Lost Conspiracy in the States, is out now. Her next book, A Face Like Glass, is due out in the UK May, 2012. Based on this chapter excerpt at the Guardian, it sounds like another great world to get lost in. Also, the sequel to Fly By Nightwas published in 2011. For a peek at the cover and a link to a fantastic review, scroll down.
The amazing sequel is here! I've not had the chance to review it yet, but this glowing review from the always spot-on Betsy Bird at fuse #8 should do the job. Bird starts her review by explaining why she rarely reads sequels, noting that Frances Hardinge is one author she will drop everything to read - sequel or otherwise.