This book was written by someone (Frances Hardinge) who loves books and words, for all of us who do likewise. It’s utterly enchanting, with a sly sense of humour and delightful characterisation. I just love it. I read it when it first came out, and reviewed it for the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English. I believe I had grand plans of donating the book to school; I think I convinced them to buy their own copy instead. I have re-read it this past weekend because I discovered that Hardinge wrote a sequel, and I finally got my hands on it… and it reminded me of how passionately I loved it the first time. Surely, I thought, the Suck Fairy can’t have visited in six years? Happily, she hasn’t.
Mosca lives in a world that borrows liberally from the Britain of the early eighteenth century but also, as Hardinge herself warns, takes great liberties with anything resembling historicity. It’s a world of coffeehouses that float on the river; beautiful ladies in awesome gowns who go to watch beast matches; men with monocles and gloves and dastardly plans; and one girl who can read, is desperate for words and stories, and has a rather large dollop of bloody-minded determination in her head. Who else would kidnap a goose when she runs away? And who else could persuade the goose to hang around? The world’s resemblances to historical Britain also include a recent-ish Civil War, but here the result has been a Fractured Realm: no monarch has been properly proclaimed, and Parliament is dithering in its effort to confirm one (and has done so for decades). Religion, too, has been fractured, and it’s based loosely on the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation (I’ve just realised; sometimes I am seriously dim).
So Mosca runs away from the sodden Chough, after rescuing Eponymous Clent (I never get bored by that name); they have various adventures, and end up in Mandelion, where yet more adventures await them. There are traitors, and mysterious benefactors, and villains-who-aren’t, and a just-manageable cast who remain entertaining and enthralling for the entire story; I certainly never got bored by any of them. Mosca demonstrates hidden strengths, as befits a plucky heroine, who at times descends to genuinely murky depths. Hardinge plays very interesting games with Clent, leaving the reader guessing for quite a long time as to whether he is a blood-sodden genius or a silver-tongued skin-of-the-teeth and seat-of-the-pants petty crim. Even Saracen the goose has some wonderful moments.
The narrative is entertaining, the characters are endearing, and the world is enthralling. Over all and in all and making it all wonderful, though, is the prose. Hardinge has a wonderful turn of phrase, full of alliteration and poetic language. It never falls into the flowery trap, mostly because it’s often in Mosca’s mouth, which means it tends towards acerbic instead.
The roof of the dovecote stealthily rose, and two sets of eyes peered out through the gap. One pair of eyes were coal beads, set between a bulging bully brow and a beak the colour of pumpkin peel. The other pair were human, and as hot and black as pepper.
Clent: Where is your sense of patriotism?
Mosca: I keep it hid away safe, along with my sense of trust, Mr Clent. I don’t use ’em much in case they get scratched.