Many of my friends – most especially Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile – have raved about Frances Hardinge’s novel A Face Like Glass. Unfortunately, this one book of hers isn’t available in print in the U.S., and I haven’t yet been desperate enough to have it shipped from the UK, there being so many good books I haven’t read around me already. Instead, I picked up the earliest of her books that was on the shelf at my library.
Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge. Macmillan, 2005.
Mosca Mye (probably aged 11 or 12) is an orphan in a world that’s falling apart. (The author’s note at the end says that the world is very loosely based on 17th century England, with a lot of disregard for actual history and some for the laws of physics.) Every city and town supports a different claimant to the crown of the land, but in reality, the country is controlled by powerful rival guilds, including the Stationers who control everything that’s printed and have decided that reading is too dangerous for the masses, and the Locksmiths, who exact a criminal price from anyone unwilling to pay for their locks. Religious upheaval has left people worshipping a colorful array of saint-like people called the Beloved – several assigned to each day of the year. Each person is named for the objects sacred to the Beloved of the hour under which they were born, so that our heroine, born during the time of Goodman Palpittatle, to whom flies are sacred (or maybe he protects people from flies), but in any case, Mosca is named for a fly and everyone makes negative assumptions about her character based on her name.
That rather elaborate world set-up is less painful in the book, as we are mostly thrust very quickly into Mosca trying to escape from the village where her aunt and uncle do not want her and most especially will never want her back now that she has mostly accidentally set their mill on fire. She takes with her the fearsome goose Saracen, her only friend, and decides that her best route out of the backwater town is to free a smooth-talking con man, Eponymous Clent, from the village stocks. He’s certainly not trustworthy, but he shares her love of words and she hopes that gratitude will at least get her someplace she can try to make a fresh start.
The someplace they end up is Mandelion, a port city on the brink of revolution. And someone Mosca Mye, Saracen, and Eponymous Clent will all play a role in which of the many rival guilds, nobles, and religious groups comes out on top.
This is a long and fairly dense magic-less political fantasy, with a scrappy character and her goose to root for. Though there are plenty of close escapes, the scenery is described in language almost as florid as that used by Eponymout Clent himself – clearly meant for those readers who relish their words. Just recently I was having a discussion with an 11-year-old friend, who wondered why it is that the good guys always win. I told him a) history is written by the winners but also b) because people writing for kids want to show things that way. Hardinge comes as close to ambiguity as you’re likely to find in middle grade literature. Mosca finishes the book alive if not necessarily triumphant, but whether or not the people of Mandelion are better off for her actions isn’t entirely clear. This is very impressive stuff – certainly not for everyone, but for right advanced middle grade reader, this could be life-changing.
Mosca’s story continues in Fly Trap by Frances Hardinge. Macmillan, 2011.
Same world, new town. Or towns. Mosca and Eponymous find themselves only able to stay in towns for a short while before they become unwelcome, until they wind up in the bridge town of Toll, where you must pay to leave and pay to enter. Having paid their way in, they will only be able to get out if they can earn or steal enough to pay their way out again. But they desperately want to get out, because Toll is a town divided. Each person’s name is decided to belong either to night or day, and people are allowed to exist only during their time. Half of the population, being assigned to the night, is never allowed to see daylight. Mosca, of course, is a nightling – so she has only three days of being a visitor before she will be sent from Toll-by-Day to Toll-by-Night, a city with different streets and buildings and a much less savory population.
Their only hope is to earn a reward for knowledge they have of the planned kidnapping of the mayor’s much-admired daughter, Beamabeth Marlebourne. If only the mayor will believe a people with no money and less-than-perfect names…
This contains more delightfully twisty plots and political happenings, as well as rescuings by goose. I found the ultimate villain to be disappointingly similar to the villain in the first book – but that’s a minor complaint in an overall very solid book. Again, at nearly 600 pages, these books are for strong middle grade readers and up, especially those who really could read, say, George R. R. Martin, but don’t need the body count.