Having barely escaped the revolution they had a huge (if accidental) part in causing, sharp-eyed orphan Mosca Mye; her guard goose, Saracen; and their sometimes-loyal companion, the con man Eponymous Clent, must start anew. All too quickly, they find themselves embroiled in fresh schemes and twisting politics as they are trapped in Toll, an odd town that changes its entire personality as day turns to night. Mosca and her friends attempt to fend off devious new foes, subvert old enemies, prevent the kidnapping of the mayor’s daughter, steal the town’s Luck, and somehow manage to escape with their lives—and hopefully a little money in their pockets.
Unlike Fly by Night, I was much less distracted while reading Fly Trap. This might have affected the way I feel about both books, but that can’t be helped. As it stands, I loved Fly Trap much, much more than Fly by Night. The worldbuilding was much less complicated (all I had to remember was that Locksmiths=bad things and Mandelion=rebellion) and the setting of the book itself fascinated me. I loved the concept of Toll, the wooden town with the sliding doors and completely different personalities at day and at night. I loved the stubbornness of Mosca, the glibness of Eponymous, the delight of new characters like Paragon and Midwife Leap, and the wild shenanigans that occurred (the four Clatterhorse parade was probably my favorite part of the book, along with anything involving Saracen).
Fly Trap isn’t as focused on the written word and books as Fly by Night was, and so some of the beautiful language that was in Fly by Night didn’t seem as apparent in Fly Trap. But there were delicious bits of imagery here and there, and overall I enjoyed the characters, setting, and plot of Fly Trap too much to care that some of the beauty of the writing wasn’t as stand-out as it had been in the first book.
It did take me a little bit to fully get into and enjoy the book, but once I did (pretty much once Mosca & Co. got to Toll), I could barely put Fly Trap down. I wouldn’t mind reading about another adventure of Mosca and Eponymous and Saracen, but I loved this one so much that I think it would be hard to top.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: A small amount of violence, death.
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Did you see its face?” The doctor was craning his head to one side, perhaps in an attempt to see whether the pie-hatted man’s head was bulging strangely.
“There was no time for that, sir. One minute it was swooping at me, then it grabbed hold of me and tried to drag me to hell with the might of a hurricane.”
“You actually felt it?” The doctor seemed fascinated.
“Well, yes, sir. You don’t think my nose is this color naturally, do you?” the feature in question did indeed seem to be unusually raw looking.
Twelve-year-old Mosca Mye hasn’t got much. Her cruel uncle keeps her locked up in his mill, and her only friend is her pet goose, Saracen, who’ll bite anything that crosses his path. But she does have one small, rare thing: the ability to read. She doesn’t know it yet, but in a world where books are dangerous things, this gift will change her life. Enter Eponymous Clent, a smooth-talking con man who seems to love words nearly as much as Mosca herself. Soon Mosca and Clent are living a life of deceit and danger—discovering secret societies, following shady characters onto floating coffeehouses, and entangling themselves with crazed dukes and double crossing racketeers. It would be exactly the kind of tale Mosca has always longed to take part in, until she learns that her one true love—words—may be the death of her.
My enjoyment of Fly by Night was marred by the slow pace at which I read it; work and other “real” things made it so that I was only reading a small portion at a time, and when I was reading, I was either busy thinking about other things so I wasn’t completely focused on the book, or I was falling asleep while reading (not because the book is boring but because I was tired), or I just did not have enough time to enjoy it properly.
As a result, the book didn’t fit into a cohesive unit for me. I had trouble remembering the world building and what was going on in the plot and who the numerous characters were. All of this, of course, has nothing to do with the quality of the book itself; I’m merely sad that I couldn’t focus more properly on reading this book—because what sunk in and what I remember of it, I really liked. So, I can’t say much about the plot or the world, because as I explained above, a lot of details flew out of the window because of my state of mind and because I read it in much smaller sections over a much longer period of time than I usually read. I did find the world a little confusing, and keeping track of all the characters was hard—but that could be my distraction speaking.
But, distraction and forgetfulness aside, Fly by Night revels in delicious imagery and enjoying words and creating scenarios that seem so strange yet fit right into the world. Hardinge is a fantastic, unique writer and the focus that is placed on the written word—in a book where the written word is heavily restricted, if not banned outright—is detailed and precise. The reader becomes Mosca, enjoying the words that she hears and sees. It’s a beautiful book and I can see why a lot of people make a fuss over Hardinge. For a debut novel, it’s fabulously, beautifully original.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: A small amount of violence, death.
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“I am a writer of ballads—I value gestures. I understand them. I know what I can do with them. Let us suppose, for example, that you allowed this young woman to stay in her carriage, handed her back her money, and wished her and her people godspeed back to Mandelion so that she could find a physician who might save her life—ah, what I could do with that!”
Blythe’s eyes asked silently what Clent could do with that.
“I could write a ballad that would make proverbial the chivalry of Clamoring Captain Blythe. By nightWhen you rode the cold cobbles of a midnight street, you would hear it sung in the taverns you passed, to give you more warmth than that thin coat of yours. When you were hunted across the moors by the constables, hundreds would lie sleepless, hoping that brave Captain Blythe still ran free.
“And when at night you lay on your bed of earth under your dripping roof of bracken, with no company but the wind and your horse champing moss near your head, you would know that in a glittering banquet hall somewhere, some young lady of birth would be thinking of you.
Faith Sunderly leads a double life. To most people, she is modest and well mannered—a proper young lady who knows her place. But inside, Faith is burning with questions and curiosity. She keeps sharp watch of her surroundings and, therefore, knows secrets no one suspects her of knowing—like the real reason her family fled Kent to the close-knit island of Vane. And that her father’s death was no accident. In pursuit of revenge and justice for the father she idolizes, Faith hunts through his possessions, where she discovers a strange tree. A tree that bears fruit only when she whispers a lie to it. The fruit in turn, delivers a hidden truth. The tree might hold the key to her father’s murder. Or, it might lure the murderer directly to Faith herself, for lies—like fires, wild and crackling—quickly take on a life of their own.
I love Frances Hardinge, but her books are so strange that I’m caught between “this is great” and “this is weird and I can’t really get into it.” That’s exactly how I felt reading The Lie Tree, which takes a simple setting (Victorian England) and gives it a supernatural twist with the concept of a lie tree, which basically gives you truths if you feed it lies. Or something like that.
I will briefly express my displeasure at Hardinge for getting many religious facts wrong, such as the entire concept of the Nephilim and other cliché representations, but at least she is somewhat open-minded and doesn’t paint one group or the other with too thick of a brush. And, granted, since the book takes place in the Victorian era she does do well occasionally with representing the thought process at the time, although, again, it’s incredibly clichéd and stereotypical most of the time.
So, yes, The Lie Tree is strange, and I’m so sick of “women can’t do anything so protagonist sets out to Do Something” novels, but it was still pretty good. Hardinge is a great writer, and the strange parts had a sort of attraction to them even as they repelled me. The villain, while not terribly obvious at first, is almost too obvious once revealed, as in my reaction was something like “oh, of course that’s who it is. Why would it be anyone else?” But the book was engaging and typical Hardinge, and it certainly didn’t put me off from reading any more of her works. I liked Faith well enough and overall, I enjoyed the book as a whole.
Faith opened her mouth to apologize, but the words died in her mouth. Her father’s posture, always ramrod-straight, was now oddly slumped. She had never seen his face so pale, so slack. Her skin tingled.
There was a clammy smell in the room, she realized, the cold scent she had noticed in the Folly. Now it ran little ice-fingers down her throat, through the nerves of her teeth, and across the backs of her eyes. The air was alive with it.
Following a mysterious accident that left her sopping wet, Triss awakens to a world that’s eerily off-kilter. Her memories are muddled, her sister despises her, pages have been stolen from her private journal, and her appetite is insatiable. Confusion quickly turns to dread as she begins to see and hear things she shouldn’t. Her dolls reveal themselves to be deceitful, living creatures; she’s suddenly and inexplicably afraid of scissors; and when she brushes her hair, out sprinkle crumbled fragments of leaves. Then she stumbles across evidence that her beloved brother, killed in the war, is actually alive—and she begins to suspect that the secrets lurking within her home are even more shocking than her twisted new reality. Is Triss going mad? Or did her accident trigger an nightmarish chain of events? In her quest to learn the truth, Triss ventures from the shelter of her parents’ protective wings into the city’s underbelly. There she encounters strange creatures whose grand schemes could forever alter the fates of her family.
Cuckoo Song starts out as a relatively creepy, suspenseful story and then spirals into strange territory with the introduction of the Besiders and the revelation of what really happened to Triss. Hardinge, as always, is a beautiful writer and crafts a hauntingly pretty story.
However, Hardinge doesn’t pull everything off as successfully as she might like, and at one point I had a severe disconnect with the story when the book was telling me I should feel one way and I was feeling another way. So my sympathies didn’t always align with Triss as they were meant to, especially at one point when the book is saying “This is a terrible thing!” and I’m saying “Um, this really isn’t so terrible.”
I’m not really a fan of this sort of genre, either, but I will say that Hardinge did a good job and I was engaged with Cuckoo Song for the most part, though I read it in bits and pieces because of general busy-ness. Not everything worked for me and I didn’t always sympathize with the characters, but I was at least involved with their plight as a whole. It was, however, a little too strange for me, and I think I might actually have liked it better if it had been a straight-up horror rather than urban fantasy.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Scary images and scenes.
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Middle Grade
“What are you doing here?” she asked under her breath. “I’m thirteen. Why do I still carry a doll around?”
And it was while these words were still hanging in the air that the doll moved in her hands.
The first things to shift were the eyes, the beautiful gray-green glass eyes. Slowly they swiveled, until their gaze was resting on Triss’s face. Then the tiny mouth moved, opened to speak.
“What are you doing here?” It was an echo of Triss’s words, uttered in tones of outrage and surprise, and in a voice as cold and musical as the clinking of cups. “Who do you think you are? This is my family.”
Ryan and his friends don’t think twice about stealing some money from a wishing well. After all, who’s really going to miss a few tarnished coins? The well witch does. And she demands payback: Now Ryan, Josh, and Chelle must serve her…and the wishes that lie rotting at the bottom of her well. Each takes on powers they didn’t ask for and don’t want. Ryan grows strange bumps—are they eyes?—between his knuckles; Chelle starts speaking the secrets of strangers, no matter how awful and bloody; and Josh can suddenly—inexplicably—grant even the darkest of wishes, the kind of wishes that should never come true.
Even though the summary hints at things being more serious than at first glance, I still went into this book thinking it would be a fun, cute book in the vein of Half Magicor The Enchanted Castle. And at the beginning it is; the children realize they need to grant people’s wishes and start figuring out how to get a guy a motorcycle, and it’s fun—and then Hardinge takes that Enchanted Castle feel and twists it into something darker.
Suddenly, Ryan and Chelle and Josh start thinking about what wishes are and what they mean and if some wishes aren’t better off not granted, after all. Coupled with some scary imagery, things get pretty intense—especially when, horror-movie style, Ryan peers out his window in the rain and spies Josh standing in the rain and realizes what exactly that means.
So, yes, it’s intense and even scary at some points, but Hardinge communicates some deep ideas through the concept of granting wishes, such as the concept of saying one thing and wanting something deeper than that or beyond that. “Don’t take things at face value” is part of the message of the book, which is a good message to have for a book directed to an age that is starting to learn just that. But more than that, Hardinge shows that sometimes what you want isn’t what you need, and that often what you wish is only a superficial answer to what you really want.
The three kids’ personalities fit exactly with what happens to them, especially Josh, and despite the supernatural aspect, I actually believe that this sort of thing could happen. And Ryan, despite having some deep introspection that belies his age, is a believable eleven-year-old who deeply reflects on things that happen around him. Very well-crafted by Hardinge.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Some scary imagery and scenes.
Genre: Supernatural, Realistic, Middle Grade
“Okay, wishing wells. People come and drop in a coin and make a wish. That’s what they’re for. So…there’s this thing living down the well, a well spirit, and she gets given all these coins with wishes attached, and maybe she’s supposed to grant them in exchange. And then we come along and take the coins….” Ryan gave the others a wince of a smile. “There was this word the well-thing kept saying over and over, but it just sounded like she was sneezing through soup. Only I’m starting to think it might have been ‘wishes.’”
Josh gave a sudden low grown, as if stricken with indigestion and doubled up so that his forehead rested on the grass. Clearly he had guessed what Ryan was about to say.
“I think…” Ryan continued, “I think when the well accepts the coins, that’s like promising to grant the wishes…and I think us taking the coins means…that we have to grant them.”
Well Witched turned out to be much more intense than what I was expecting, but that’s not a bad thing. Hardinge won me over with her handling of themes and the message, and the representation of the three children. It’s a beautifully crafted novel—although, despite all the good things I’ve said, not an overly fantastic one.