There is an exquisite agony in expectation.
A few years ago I read Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love sequence. I owned all of the books but I read them over almost a year… because it was kind of almost fun to wait, even though I had no need; and because I didn’t want the ride to be over.
Last year I did the same with Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (which still isn’t finished because I haven’t got around to finding the last two), and Sarah Monette’s Mirador.
I had Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass sitting on my desk for a full week, waiting to be read. It’s not exactly a year, but the principle is the same: knowing that I had it there waiting to read was incredibly exciting; knowing that as soon as I started reading it would soon be over was excruciating. Because oh my Hardinge is a glorious, glorious author.
And now I’ve read it and it was as I expected – which is to say even better than I expected – but now I am FINISHED and I am BEREFT.
A curmudgeonly cheesemonger is so antisocial he just lives in the tunnels with his cheeses (no ordinary cheese, it should be said, but cheese that can make you see visions and hear songs and maybe spit acid at you. TRUE Cheese). One day he finds a girl in a vat of whey… and her face: well, he makes her wear a mask.
Now, you might be thinking this guy is a bit odd. And he is. But the society he’s turned his back on is that of Caverna; they all live underground. And the other thing that’s different about them is that as babies, they don’t learn facial expressions. At all. Babies, toddlers, even adults if you’ve got the money, have to learn Faces: initially from family, and then from Facesmiths. Yes, this is as weird as it sounds… and it ends up being a really interesting reflection on class issues. Once you’re an adult, it costs a lot to learn new and interesting Faces; so of course, the poor don’t. And can’t. Does that mean they don’t have the emotions that require such a range of emotions?
Indeed, what does it mean to feel an emotion if you can’t express emotion via your features? Hardinge doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but she makes a compelling, swoon-worthy novel from the issue.
It’s not all cheese and frowns, though. There’s also intrigue, friendship, losing your way, kleptomancy (my new favouritest way of telling the future), True Wine and Cartographers whose words can make you go crazy. There’s recognising your own emotions as well as others’, figuring out who to trust and how to trust yourself, and the willingness to Go With The Crazy.
And then there’s the glory that is Hardinge’s prose. Her words don’t just flow; sometimes they trickle and sometimes they gush but they always worm into your brain and create stunning pictures and magnificent juxtapositions. I’m pretty sure I could read Hardinge’s shopping list and it would be a work of lyrical beauty.
Get it from Fishpond. If you have never read a single Hardinge, read this one… and then read the rest….
I have had this sitting on my TBR pile for ages, and given how much I adore Hardinge it doesn’t make sense it took me so long to pick it up. Oh well, water under the bridge… heh… Anyway, I went in expecting a rollicking adventure like Fly by Night. After all, how bad could it be to take coins from a wishing well, right? And even if there is a spirit in there who doesn’t like being stolen from, how bad can it be? And if she decides that you need to help her in fulfilling some of the wishes, that can’t go badly, can it? Especially if she gives you some shiny powers to aid you in that effort?
Yeah. This book was way darker than I had expected. On reflection Mosca Mye’s adventures weren’t all sunshine and skittles either, but I don’t think I ever actually feared for her life, or that Saracen the goose would end up in a pie (much as he might have deserved it). Nor did Mosca ever end up with eyes growing on her knuckles.
Josh, Ryan and Chelle sneak off to a village they’re not meant to visit, and they miss the last bus their tickets will get them home on. To get more money for tickets, Josh goes down a wishing well. Over the next couple of days, all three children discover that weird things are happening: Ryan is growing weird itchy wart-things on his knuckles, Chelle can’t stop herself from randomly spouting what seems like nonsense, and Josh is making light bulbs blow and phones go staticky. Naturally, with some experimentation and a weird dream experience for Ryan, they discover this is connected to their theft from the well and they have now been press-ganged into granting wishes, with powers to help. Fun, eh?
Of course, we all know that wishes are – as Ryan describes it – a bit like conkers. There’s the outside bit that you can see, but then there’s the inside bit – the meaty bit – that’s often darker, and spikier, and not so speak-out-loud. But the spirit in the well knows that bit, too.
Things get out of control. Of course. There’s adventure – some exhilarating and some terrifying – and some occasions of just sheer terror for Ryan, our point of view character, in particular. As with the best stories there’s more than one level of problems to be dealt with, and I’ve rarely read a YA/kids’ book where parental arguments are shown quite so realistically, along with the child’s reaction. Also the fact that your parents aren’t necessarily going to get along with your friends’ parents, although that was mostly just funny. Adolescent friendship and its highs, lows, difficulties, competition, and hierarchy is treated very tenderly: Hardinge pulls no punches but does allow her characters to develop over just a few days in reaction to their circumstances. I’m quite sure most people will recognise aspects of Ryan, Chelle and Josh’s little clique, and not necessarily with rosy memories either.
As for other characters… there’s also a mean old lady who was, on reflection, actually treated rather poorly – she was certainly nasty but probably didn’t deserve quite the ending she got – and a nice young lady whose agoraphobia wasn’t explored in great detail but was treated with sympathy. There are five parents between the three children, which is rather a change from your classic YA where the parents are got rid of or otherwise not involved in the story; Ryan’s parents are very present in much of the story, and they get to be appropriately complex. And the spirit in the well – I won’t say much because I don’t want to spoil it, but I was really impressed with the context Hardinge develops, and especially with the ultimate resolution.
Look, I read this in an afternoon. It’s utterly absorbing and gloriously written. Just read it already. You can buy it from Fishpond.
(Apparently it was released as Well Witched in America. I do not know why.)
Reading Frances Hardinge is all about Saracen, for me. Saracen the evil-eyed bully-boy goose.
Of course, there is also Mosca, his owner. This is a world where so many little gods – the Beloved – are worshipped that rather than having their own day, the Beloved have certain hours of a day devoted to them; being born in a Beloved’s time determines your name and, in people’s eyes, your very nature. Mosca was born at the time of Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jam and Butterchurns – Lord of the Flies, if you will. It is an inauspicious name, to say the least, and Mosca’s fierce black eyes and equally fierce temper, and occasional propensity for playing fast and loose with the strict letter of the law, do not help her case. Nor does her ownership and protectiveness of a certain winged warrior. She is wonderful.
There’s also Eponymous Clent, Mosca’s… well. Friend? Protector? She wouldn’t like either of those terms. Co-conspirator, perhaps; ally, usually. Swindler, con-man, runner-away-from-debts and hater of Saracen, Eponymous can usually be relied on to talk his and Mosca’s way out of the trouble that he or she has managed to talk them into. Except at the beginning of this story, where he is in a debtor’s prison and for some reason the town doesn’t seem willing to accept poetry in lieu of actual currency.
Saracen plays a small, though vital, part in the story, just as he did in the preceding novel, Fly By Night – one of my favourite YA books. This time, despite the important role Mosca and Eponymous played in Mandelion, they find themselves once again on the road with little coin for bread or board. Deciding to head for the other side of the river, they find themselves in Toll, a town which prides itself on having the only real bridge across the Langfeather. As with many towns with such a precious commodity and monopoly, Toll is pretty smug. It’s also really, really weird, with some serious discrepancies between Toll-by-Day and Toll-by-Night, which of course Mosca and Eponymous and Saracen end up finding out all about. They just can’t seem to help themselves; start off with a good con or maybe a chance at a reward, ending up uncovering all sorts of interesting things that all sorts of interesting people would prefer to keep covered, thanks all the same, and can I roast your goose?
Hardinge has a wonderful way with words, and is a deft hand at descriptive prose; she’s created a really interesting world here. It’s a fantasy insofar as it’s not our she’s writing about; but at the same time there it’s not magical, nor steampunk. It’s just a world maybe on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, quite comfortable in itself as a rule even if most cities and provinces aren’t entirely sure who should be ruling them. I really hope there is more Mosca Mye to come.
In which “best” becomes “superior,” Pottermore is Pottermeh, one of us wins all the awards, and we visit/revisit classic non-hard works of SF and Fantasy by Bujold, Willis and Pratchett (with bonus Russian fairytales by Valente). We can be got from iTunes or streamed from Galactic Suburbia.
Pottermore announcement to be made during our podcast…
Theodore Sturgeon finalists.
David Gemmell Awards…
NatCon professional guests for next year are Kelly Link and Alison Goodman.
Sidewise Awards finalists.
Translation Awards winners.
Coode Street Horror Special with Stoker winners Datlow & Straub.
Gender Spotting Tool. Alisa’s verdict: Naff.
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Connie Willis’ Passage in progress, the next 3 Twelve Planets.
Alex: so much Bujold (Cordelia’s Honorand Young Miles omnibuses… omnibi… whatever), Fly by Night, Frances Hardinge, Red Glove, Holly Black. Series 2 of V (reboot)
Tansy: Deathless, Catherynne Valente; I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett; Wyrd Sisters audiobook, Terry Pratchett/Celia Imrie.
Next Fortnight: Galactic Suburbia’s Spoilerific Book Club Presents: Joanna Russ. Reading How to Suppress Women’s Writing, The Female Man, “When It Changed.”
Please send feedback to us at email@example.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
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.
I finally finished this today – it’s one of the books VATE sent me to review. It’s by Frances Hardinge; I think it may be a debut. It was brilliant! Highly original and interesting. The writing was very entertaining – the descriptions were original and evocative; the characters were fascinating and believable; and the world as a whole is one I would love to read more about. I’m really looking forward to writing the review, and I think I will probably donate the book to school – I can’t in good conscience have it sitting on my bookcase and not being read by other people who might enjoy it.