Frances Hardinge’s last two books, Cuckoo Song and The Lie Tree have been set in different periods of history, Cuckoo Song in a strange version of the early twentieth century, where the rich drive Daimlers, and other poorer and more daring beings get about on motor bikes. Here Triss discovers she is a changeling and her only friend is Violet on her motor bike. The Lie Tree is set in the late nineteenth century after the devastating publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Devastating for Faith’s father, because he is both a scientist and a clergyman. Faith has to struggle with the fact of her father’s lies and take many risks before the story is resolved.
Hardinge’s latest book A Skinful of Shadows is set in the mid 1600’s in the period leading up to the English Civil War. Here, too, her heroine is very much alone. Makepeace and her mother are tolerated by their Puritan relatives, but when her mother dies, and Makepeace shows signs of being wild and in touch with ghosts, they send her back to the family her mother fled. Makepeace has never understood why her mother sometimes left her at night in a stone hut on the marshes where she was beset by evil dreams and terrifying creatures. She slowly learns this was done in attempt to make her strong, to help her to resist the ghosts who will seek to live within her body and mind. When she is held at Grizehayes, the stately mansion of the Fellmottes, she comes to understand why they want to own a lowly uneducated kitchen maid like her. Although she is a by-blow, she is a Fellmotte in one essential quality.
I know some readers draw the line at young heroes and heroines, but Frances Hardinge’s are strong and resourceful beyond their years. Makepiece has a fierce temper not helped by the fact that the spirt of a bear is lodged within her.
A blind, angry, desperate ghost was inside her. Her worst fear had happened, after all. And now Bear would blunder around in her, and smash her mind to pieces. It would bloody and break her body in its frenzy to leave the turret room…54
She spends time with the supporters of the King and with the Puritans and can see the flaws in both. She will only support those who want a free life and greater equality for everyone. She suffers torture, she has to do quite stomach churning medical procedures, but somehow she prevails.
I was still reading this book when my husband came home from work; no dinner prepared and no lights on. I had been in another world.
This book is gripping and thought provoking. It is wonderful to see Makepeace becoming a skilled tactician and growing in self-knowledge and confidence. It would also make a wonderful film or TV series. From the forbidding grandeur of Grizehayes, to the rabble of apprentices fighting in the streets, to the dark gloomy moors, it is full of atmosphere.
Grizehayes in winter appeared its true self – colourless, eternal, untouchable, unchangeable. It numbed the mind and froze the soul, and made all dreams of escape seem childish… 123
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