Friday, 28 June 2013

#CBR5 Book 66. "Fly by Night" by Frances Hardinge

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Plot summary by Goodreads, because it's much more pithy than anything I myself could write:

After her father dies, Mosca Mye flees the hamlet where she grew up. With her goose companion and a smooth-tongued swindler, Eponymous Clent, she heads for the city of Mandelion - and a better life. There she finds herself living by her wits among highwaymen, spies and smugglers, insane rulers and floating coffeehouses. With peril at every turn, Mosca uncovers a dark plot to terrorize the people of Mandelion, and soon merry mayhem leads to murder...

Mosca is a clever child, living in a town where most people can't read, in a world where if something is found printed without the authorising seal of the Stationers' Guild, it's seen as illegal, and must be burned. The world she lives in resembles ours, in the 18th Century, to some extent. Various Guilds of Tradesmen vie for power in the various cities of the Realm, while Parliament debate who should inherit the throne. About ten years past, there was a terrible Civil War, when the religious radical group the Birdcatchers were all hunted down and destroyed. In Mandelion, the ruling Duke is clearly going slowly insane, his beautiful and enigmatic sister is trying to keep the Locksmith's Guild (who have the keys to any door and lock) from completely taking over, and there is someone with an illegal printing press, encouraging sedition and stirring up dangerous thoughts. Mosca is thrust straight into the middle of all of this, with her somewhat dubious companion, self-proclaimed wordsmith and con man, Eponymous Clent. Accompanied by a foul tempered gander and wanting desperately to better her situation in the world, Mosca agrees to help the alluring Lady Tamarind (the Duke's sister) try to figure out what is going on.

Mosca was taught to read by her father, who fled Mandelion years ago. She's fiercely intelligent, and hates her staid village life. In a town where no one else reads, she soaks up new words and learning like a sponge. She's so seduced by the silver-tongued Clent and "his way with words" that she rescues him from the stocks (and accidentally burns down her uncle's mill), and they go on the run together. She's learned early not to entirely trust anyone, which is a good quality to have in Mandelion, where the political situation is so fraught that the smallest spark could ignite another civil uprising.

This is a lovely and exciting book, wonderfully written - not surprising considering how much Mosca loves words so much. Frances Hardinge doesn't talk down to the middle grade/young adult audience she writes for, and I was amazed when I discovered that this was, in fact, her debut novel. I first read about this book on the The Book Smugglers' blog, where they're also highly enthusiastic about her other books. While this is my first Hardinge novel, it certainly won't be my last.

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