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.
Mosca's eyes had earned her countless beatings, and years of suspicion. For one thing, they had a way of looking venomous even when she held her pointed tongue. For another thing, her eyes wielded a power that was beyond everyone else in Chough except the magistrate. She could read.
Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad.
The short version of this post is: everyone needs to read Frances Hardinge, because her books are beautifully fashioned jewels of clever, thoughtful, madcap fun.
What are you waiting for? Go on! You trust my judgement, right? Or else you wouldn't be reading this blog. (Unless you just stumbled across it while googling for something completely different, in which case: hi, nice to meet you, read Frances Hardinge.)
And don't just take my word for it; my co-blogger Vicky, after all, called Hardinge's A Face Like Glass "an imagintion run amok ... channelled into Big Themes ... significant important stuff, as well as about ten ordinary book-loads of fun at the same time".Fine, then, you can have a little more detail. I read Hardinge's Twilight Robbery (2011) last year, to discuss on a panel at a convention, and enjoyed it so much that a few months back I filched Fly By Night (2005) - to which Robbery is a sequel - from my partner's shelves, and raced through it in about two days. Both novels centre on the unlikely but thoroughly likeable pair of prickly tearaway Mosca Mye and her violent sort-of-pet goose, Saracen. Twelve-year-old Mosca is a whip-smart, "ferrety-looking girl with [...] unconvincing eyebrows", who - as a result of a vaguely Dickensian childhood of dead parents and exploitative guardians - squints suspiciously at the world through a veil of deep-seated distrust. Or, as we're (re-)introduced to her in Twilight Robbery, she's a "shivering, clench-jawed scrap of damp doggedness" whose "two large black eyes glistened like coal and gave the marketplace a look that spoke of coal's grit, griminess and hidden fire". As Mosca herself puts it, when it's suggested to her in Fly By Night that she might get involved with an effort to save the city of Mandelion:
"Where is your sense of patriotism?"
"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."
Saracen, meanwhile, is a feathered whirlwind of aggression inhabiting the fine line between charmingly insouciant and psychopathic (if geese can be psychopaths), regularly causing all manner of destruction - to people and property - and then "swaggering" out of the debris:
Saracen had been making a name for himself. That name was not ‘Saracen'. Indeed the name was more along the lines of 'that hell-fowl', 'did-you-see-what-it-did-to-my-leg', 'kill-it-kill-it-there-it-goes' or 'what's-that-chirfugging-goose-done-now'.
To anyone except Mosca, that is, with whom Saracen shares "if not a friendship, at least the solidarity of the generally despised". They're fiercely loyal to each other and make a most entertaining, anarchic team. And beneath her bristling exterior, moreover, Mosca hides a spirit that delights in learning and strives above all to understand and articulate how the world works. In a society deeply suspicious of writing - to the point of holding mass book-burnings - Mosca adores words, collects them:
Mendacity, thought Mosca. Mellifluous. She did not know what they meant, but the words had shapes in her mind. She memorized them, and stroked them in her thoughts like the curved backs of cats. Words, words, wonderful words.
Since the death of her scholar father, and the community's subsequent burning of his books, Mosca has "subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavourless as potatoes". When travelling stranger Eponymous Clent has turns up in her town at the start of Fly By Night, conning all and sundry - or attempting to - with "phrases as vivid and strange as spices", she's drawn, moth to flame, to Clent's flamboyant loquacity. (Hardinge, too, has a very evident love of words, and a skilful knack of weaving them into imagery that is vivid with insight into her characters and their world.) Quite literally 'to flame', in fact, because Mosca burns down her uncle's barn, semi-accidentally, in her efforts to help Clent escape her neighbours' wrath; but by then she has already decided to leave her unhappy home with him. As she reflects, later in the novel, when challenged on this point:
"But in the name of the most holy, Mosca, of all the people you could have taken up with, why Eponymous Clent?"
Because I'd been hoarding words for years, buying them from pedlars and carving them secretly on to bits of bark so I wouldn’t forget them, and then he turned up using words like 'epiphany' and 'amaranth'. Because I heard him talking in the marketplace, laying out sentences like a merchant rolling out rich silks. Because he made words and ideas dance like flames and something that was damp and dying came alive in my mind, the way it hadn't since they burned my father's books. Because he walked into Chough with stories from exciting places tangled around him like maypole streamers…
"He's got a way with words."
This passage's mingling of humour and pathos showcases one of Hardinge's most compelling qualities as a writer; she turns and turns again, adept and agile and layering meaning on meaning. Here is heartfelt sentiment allowed to build and then punctured with ironic bathos, but the irony only makes the whole thing more poignant because of what it says about our brilliant, damaged heroine and how she interacts with others. Hardinge does the same when Mosca and Clent first meet, letting Mosca's thoughts explode, briefly, with her unspoken desires - to see the world, to make friends besides Saracen and find a place for herself "where words and ideas were not things you were despised for treasuring" - only to bring the rhetoric back down to earth with a bump through Mosca's own deadpan revelation that the most urgent reason she needs to leave town is the small matter of the arson she's just carried out at home.
There is a world inside Mosca - a world of soaring passions, sharp wit, and a writer's ear for the music of alliteration and emotion in sentences that build on each other - to which only we readers are granted access. Everyone else just sees the shrug, hears the dismissiveness, is bruised - in the case of a girl who befriends her in Fly By Night - by her inability to apologise or console. She makes for a fascinating character to spend time with; you root for her to not only win the day and avoid trouble, or at least escape from the trouble she inevitably plunges headlong into, but also to make connections with nice, interesting people worthy of her trust and regard. You long for her to feel secure enough that she can relax, and sit back, and enjoy her words.
Just as she has been starved of words, so Mosca has also been deprived of the ideas they express. The irrepressible vitality of ideas and the importance of thinking - of challenging received wisdom, of examining and rejecting comforting lies and things that make no logical or emotional sense - are the central themes of both Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery. In the former, Mosca and Clent are caught up in a struggle for power in the city of Mandelion that pivots on control of the unruly technology of the printing press. A key player in the struggle is the local branch of the Guild of Stationers; as Hardinge describes them in Twilight Robbery (with an air of Pratchett about the punchline),
The formidable Guild of Stationers controlled the printing of all books in the Realm, and burned any book they considered dangerous. Most people were glad to leave them to this, for it was believed that reading the wrong book could drive you mad. The Stationers appeared the lesser of two evils, albeit one with a tendency to correct your grammar while burning your neighbours.
The Stationers have a monopoly on the press, and thus on the ability to disseminate ideas quickly and accurately, and thus on the concepts that are part of political conversation, and thus on the education that the city's children receive. Hardinge is alert to all the implications and intricacies of the many moving parts that made up an early-modern city - the competing sources of prestige and authority, the commerce and the gossip, the markets and the coffee houses, the nobles and the underclass and the just-hanging-on class - and she deftly draws us a believable little imagined urban world through Mosca's encounters and escapades.
Twilight Robbery, meanwhile, takes Mosca, Clent and Saracen to nearby Toll, a city of "alarmingly-named alleyways", all manner of secrets, and some pretty impressive engineering. Rumours of Mandelion's trials with an illegal printing press and the radical pamphlets it produced have caused Toll's authorities to double-down on all the methods of social control available to them, to stamp out any hint of subversiveness and disorder. As one of the more impressionable inhabitants, sunny-natured Beamabeth, comments to Mosca (blissfully unaware she's talking to someone who was at the centre of that whole illegal press business):
"Mandelion was taken over by radicals overnight. People have explained it to me." Her brow crinkled. "Radicals are terribly dangerous, and if you don't flush them out of your town then they eat away at everything like woodworm and, next thing you know, everything falls apart, and respectable people are hanged from the ramparts, and nobody has any coffee or chocolate."
Beamabeth is an impressive example of the nominative determinism that rules Toll with the iron hand of Tradition. In Hardinge's world, you see, the calendar is divided such that each half-day or half-night is considered sacred to one or other of the Beloved - deities rejoicing under such names and roles as Goodlady Cramflick (She Who Keeps the Vegetables of the Garden Crisp), Goodlady Emberleather (She Who Prevents the Meat from Becoming Chewy and Unwholesome), and Goodman Springzel (He Who Tips Icewater Down the Collar and Hides the Pearl in the Oyster). People are named for the Beloved under whose purview they were born; Mosca, for example, is so named because her Beloved is Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns, whereas Beamabeth is a child of Goodman Boniface, He Who Sends The Sun's Rays To Bless The Earth. Like the signs of the Zodiac, the time of someone's birth - and their name, forever signaling the association - is conventionally believed to influence a person's personality and prospects:
Names were important. You carried your name like a brand. You never lied about it, for fear of angering the god under which you were born.
In theory, there were no 'unlucky' Beloved. All of them had their place in the world, and even those who munched head lice or inspired the artistry of spiders' webs were useful and to be praised. However, the fact was that some Beloved were seen as luckier, brighter, more trustworthy, more generous, more worthy, and so were those born under them.
The social convention has become self-reinforcing, and nowhere more so than in Toll; since people believe that names are a signifier of the character, they treat each other according to the expectations attached to those names. Everyone smiles when they so much as hear the name of Beamabeth, such is the regard in which her Beloved is held; surrounded by warmth and kindness and soft fluffy things, she develops into a soft and fluffy person, who is nice to the world because the world has never been anything other than nice to her. Mosca... well, I think you can imagine.
In the wake of Mandelion's crisis, Toll is taking the tradition to ever-more-repressive extremes. It's already a pretty weird and wonderful place as it is: Mieville-style, Toll is not one but two cities sharing the same space and trying very hard to pretend the other barely exists. When night falls, whole blocks of buildings move along clockwork rails and streets realign themselves, and the people born during the day shut themselves away in their beds, while those of the night-hours Beloveds live their lives. A night-child born to day-parents is immediately separated from them. Fearful of the news from Mandelion, though, the authorities have pushed this social framework further; they have "reclassified" any Day citizen named for a Beloved deemed "radicalish", forcing them to become a Toll-by-Night denizen, shut away from the light.
Mosca has already begun to question authority in general, and the idea of the Beloved in particular, in Fly By Night; her journey continues, unsurprisingly, in Twilight Robbery, as she comes face-to-unpleasant-face with an oppressive edifice built on unthinking deference to The Way Things Have Always Been Done:
Like everybody else, Mosca had been brought up worshipping the Beloved. Every habit of her mind told her that she needed to perform little gestures of respect to these miniature gods, in order to ward off disasters great and small. But, wondered her fierce, rebellious, practical mind, what happens if I don't?
I won't even try to summarise the various brilliant scrapes and set-pieces Mosca and Saracen go through in these two novels, because the fun lies in reading it first-hand and watching Hardinge keep all her various narrative and imaginative plates spinning.
Instead, I'll leave you with Mosca's splendidly defiant rallying cry from Fly By Night, in response to the villain's declaration that if people stop believing in tradition and hierarchy, everything will fall apart. "I am content to be hated, and bloody, and outnumbered," he says, with impressive hubris. "For in this sickened world, it is better to believe in something too fiercely than to believe in nothing." But Mosca begs to differ:
Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.
"No, it isn’t!" shouted Mosca the Housefly, Quillam Mye’s daughter. "Not if what you’re believin’ isn’t blinkin’ well True! You shouldn’t just go believin’ things for no reason, pertickly if you got a sword in your hand! Sacred just means something you’re not meant to think about properly, an’ you should never stop thinking! Show me something I can kick, and hit with rocks, and set fire to, and leave out in the rain, and think about, and if it’s still standing after all that then maybe, just maybe, I’ll start to believe in it, but not till then. An’ if all we’re left with is muck and wickedness and no gods, then we’d better face it and get used to it, because it’s better than a lie."