A few months ago, I was visiting my favorite bookstore and asked the friendly bookseller for recommendations of awesome Middle Grade books (my exact words). I was promptly handed a copy of Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night.
Frances who? you might be asking yourself–pretty much what I said a few months ago. Well, Frances Hardinge is an award-winning British author with five books published thus far: Fly By Night (2005); Verdigris Deep (or Well Witched in the U.S.) (2007); Gullstruck Island (or The Lost Conspiracy) (2009); Twilight Robbery (or Fly Trap) (2011); and A Face Like Glass (2012).
Read Book Smugglers on Robin Maxwell's Tarzan reboot, Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan.
All these books have been published as Speculative Fiction and as Middle Grade novels, although they could be easily categorized YA or even adult Fantasy.
Unfortunately, I had never heard of this author before (FOOL that I was!), so I endeavoured to read Fly By Night as soon as possible. It was such a fantastic experience, I ended up gobbling up all of her books in rapid succession (apart from Verdigris Deep, which I am saving for a rainy day).
So now that I have found a new-to-me author who I think is the bee’s knees, I’d like to pay it forward and tell you why I think you should be reading her books too.
Her premises are amazing. I am in constant awe at Hardinge’s imagination and creativity. Her fantasy worlds are sophisticated (but never pretentious or boring) and her stories are thought-provoking as well as fun.
Take, for instance, Twilight Robbery, in which a town named Toll is divided in two. During daytime, Toll is inhabited by well-behaved citizens who cease to exist at dusk, when the villainous citizens of Toll-by-Night come into existence. This divide is based on the type of name a citizen has, and those names depend on the time of day each person is born, and the god that rules that particular hour. In this world, your name defines who you are.
In A Face Like Glass, the people of the underground world of Caverna are born with blank faces, unable to form any facial expression. Expressions have to be learned at a high cost, taught by Facesmiths that develop facial catalogues and sell them at a premium to Caverna’s citizens; for example, the Facesmith at the forefront of her profession is renowned for her Tragedy Range of expressions. There are other fabulous craftsmen in Caverna who come up with wines that can remove memories or cheeses that can make one hallucinate. Similar marvels also exist in the world of Gullstruck Island: a certain fish allows one a glimpse of the future and a beetle song can be deadly.
But nothing is as straightforward as it seems in Hardinge’s worlds, and as each story progresses so do the ideas that permeate them. As such, the citizens of Twilight Robbery’s Toll do not cease to exist at dusk or dawn–and being defined by the name one is called is naught but arbitrary profiling. A Face Like Glass’s world proves to be a well-established dystopia where the richer a citizen is, the more faces they are able to afford. If a citizen is poor and cannot buy facial expressions, they are only taught a handful of faces–their entire repertoire a range of servile facial expressions. And in Gullstruck Island, the living fight for survival as the places for the honored dead expand and take over the island, while the last members of a marginalized tribe fight poverty and injustice.
These are quite political books, more often than not offering social commentary, and at least four of Hardinge’s five titles end with some sort of revolution. I consider myself to be well-read when it comes to YA and MG titles, yet rarely do I see authors daring to go there–to cross that invisible apolitical line and make powerful statements like the ones present in these books.
Equally rare–unfortunately–are female protagonists like Hardinge’s. Mosca Mye (from Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery), Hathin and Arilou (Gullstruck Island) and Neverfell (A Face Like Glass) are all complex characters with strengths as well as weaknesses, whose arcs develop in beautiful and unexpected ways. All these girls question their surroundings, what they are told and choose to take a stand for their beliefs. (Of them all, Mosca is perhaps my favourite as a budding atheist, a radical revolutionary and someone with a love for words and stories.)
Which brings me to my closing argument in favor of Hardinge’s books, in which I present the author’s Staggeringly Good Writing with a few choice quotes.
From Fly By Night:
“Do you even have the first idea of what my profession entails?”
“Yes,” said Mosca. “You tell lies for money.”
“Ah. Aha. My child, you have a flawed grasp of the nature of myth-making. I am a poet and storyteller, a creator of ballads and sagas. Pray do not confuse the exercise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic.”
Mendacity, thought Mosca. Mellifluous. She did not know what they meant, but the words had shapes in her mind. She memorized them, and stroked them in her thoughts like the curved backs of cats. Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.
From Gullstruck Island:
“I am anything I wish to be. The world cannot choose for me. No, it is for me to choose what the world shall be.”
That’s my Frances Hardinge Appreciation Post. I hope I have convinced you to give her books a shot (if you haven’t already). You will not regret it.