Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge, 486 pp, RL 5
(US and UK covers - both by the impeccable Brett Heliquist...)
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 Hardinge has 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" line up 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 to create a rich and decadent feast that will linger in your memory long after you have finished it. 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. Fly By Night is compelling and hard to put down, whether you are following the plot or not. However, while Fly By Night is a book that I am passionate about, I have yet to find just the right child who would both meet the challenge of this reading adventure and be likely to enjoy this unique book.
Fly By Night is set in the world of the Fractured Realm, a kingdom without a king. 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 printed matter 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 diesL leaving Mosca to be raised by her dull aunt and uncle in the grubby, damp town of Chough, pronounced Chuff. The people of Chough burn every book in Mye's library after his death, believing 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."
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.
Once in the city of Mandelion, Mosca and Clent take lodging in a Marriage House run by the affable Bockerby and his daughter, The Cakes, the nuptials cake maker. Looking for the "ragged school" her father promised to send her to, a school that she has been dreaming of, Mosca finds a pile of rubble and the roving school taught by Hopewood Petrellis. With every new person Mosca meets, she finds she must question their intentions and their honesty, not to mention her own safety. 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. At one point in Fly By Night, Mosca retrieves Saracen from a 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 as a writer is the creation of a complex religion that accounts for the ten bloodiest years in the time of the Realm. Much like the Catholic saints, the history of the Fractured Realm is full of holy people who 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 to Fly 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 half 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, the Italian word for fly. The Beloved have shrines everywhere and are worshipped openly, but this wasn't always so. The Consequence refers to a time when fanatical priests called Birdcatchers , swept into a frenzy of fanatical study of religious texts, seized control of the Stationers Guild and began doing away with the Beloved and eventually the worshippers themselves. After ten years of terror, 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 unfair to this marvelous book. The reviews of Fly By Night in Publisher's Weekly, School Library Journal and others are woefully short and missing out on all of the wondrous details Hardinge layers onto every page. 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 that for many American readers, children or adults, Fly By Night 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, especially for a goose. 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. Fly By Night is prime example what good, really good, well written, imaginative 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 Night has 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 Night was 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 atisfy. 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. I share that sentiment completely.