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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

‘A is for awe’

Fly by Night - Frances Hardinge

Fly By Night is a playful, sophisticated story, as suited to the older reader as the young adult.  The story of a twelve-year-old misfit girl–she can read–weaves an antagonistic buddy-trip, a spy caper, guild wars, city revolutions, freedom of the press and a journey of self-discovery into a satisfying book that I wholeheartedly recommend.

 

I knew I was going to be in for something fun when I read on page one:

Celery had every reason to feel strongly on the subject of names. Her eyes were pale, soft and moist, like skinned grapes, but at the moment they were stubborn, resolute grapes.

 

Clearly, this is an author that enjoys playing with words.  I understand the simile doesn’t work–grapes can’t be resolute–but that’s exactly why I find it amusing. But Hardringe doesn’t just love playing with words; she’s written a book where themes of reading, words and books have been woven into the core of her story. Just how much does her heroine love words?

 

Since the burning of her father’s books, Mosca had been starved of words.  She had subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavorless as potatoes. Clent had brought phrases as vivid and strange as spices, and he smiled as he spoke, as if tasting 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. But lies too.

 

Surely readers can relate.

A barely-spoilery summary: Mosca’s father died, trapping her in a dreary existence in the book-fearing, water-logged village of Clough. A traveler indirectly enchants her with his wily, silver-coated tongue–not because of his lies, but because of his words–inspiring her to disobedience. Escaping Clough, they head to a nearby village, securing access on  Captain Partridge’s suspiciously weighted barge.  Forced off, they catch a ride on a peddler’s cart until encountering a wealthy woman’s damaged coach and a highwayman with a flair for the dramatic. Landing in the village of Mandelion, they take rooms in a ‘marriage house’ and then the real confusion starts.

 

Since that’s just the first 94 pages, it’s clear that this is a fast paced story. Layers upon layers are added, paralleling Mosca’s intellectual and emotional growth as she experiences the world beyond her village. I found myself challenged, and admit that I was surprised by a number of twists (all probable!) the plot took.

 

Characterization is fascinating. I’m not a fan of the current trend of anti-heroes, so I appreciate that these characters have the flavor of real people, with obsessions, grudges, hopes and misconceptions. Starry-eyed idealism doesn’t play nearly the role in their decisions that perseverance and determination do. Still, the characters aren’t unconditionally likeable; they have flaws. Mosca is irascible and Eponymous Clent is a con artist with a strategy for every situation. Our first glimpse of him is more telling for the adult readers than the younger:

The mouth was moving, spilling out long, languorous sentences in a way which suggested that, despite his predicament, the speaker rather enjoyed the sound of his own voice.

 

Yet what I loved most was Hardinge’s prose. It will surely having me buying and gifting this book. Instead of telling us how Mosca and Clent traveled the forest, we get the perspective of the path:

The path was a troublesome, fretful thing. It worried that it was missing a view of the opposite hills and insisted on climbing for a better look. Then it found the breeze uncommonly chill and ducked back among the trees. It suddenly thought it had forgotten something and doubled back, then realized that it hadn’t and turned about again. At last it struggled free of the pines, plumped itself down by the riverside, complained of its aching stones and refused to go any farther. A sensible, well-trodden track took over.”

 

I don’t know that I would call this fantasy, although the top Goodreads shelf is ‘fantasy.’ But truly, there aren’t really any fantastical elements, only extreme, storybook ones. Even the goose, swaggering and ill-tempered, is goose-like. In fact, in the afterward, Hardinge states her land is “based roughly on England at the start of the eighteenth century.” If so, it’s a history lesson in heavy disguise, the Robin Hood version.

 

Whimsical, clever, empowering and satisfying, I may just bump this up to five stars. After I buy and re-read.