Since today is my birthday I grant myself permission to reprint a Review of the Day
that I've already published before. This is my favorite children's book of 2006, read thus far. It is without comparison. It sings. It delights. I will fight for its right to get onto every Best Books List of the 2006 if I have to pin commmittee members to the ground, each and every one. For those of you who saw this review before, I apologize but birthday rights are birthday rights.
As I write this review, it is February 2006. The year, such as it is, is about a sixth over. There is plenty of time for original stories to be published, new works of fiction to pop-up overnight, and fabulous samples of writing to catch the eye. On some level, I know this. I accept it. But then I look down on my review copy of "Fly By Night" and my eyes practically fill with tears. I am looking, you see, at my favorite book of 2006. I already know this. Oh sure, back in January I was sure that my favorite book of 2006 was going to be Karen Cushman's, "The Loud Silence of Francine Green". But while my love for "Francine" is just as clear and concise as ever, Frances Hardinge's whopper of a first novel has truly stolen my heart away. Not since Philip Pullman has a book created such a finely wrought and delicately planned out alternative world. But unlike Pullman (who has his charms BUT) Hardinge's book has a distinct advantage over its competitors. It's brilliant, yes. Well-plotted, well-paced, and well-characterized, yes. But it is also drop dead funny. We're talking about a book in which a girl named after a housefly with a pipe in her teeth goes prancing across the country with her homicidal goose in tow. I haven't a clue if children will actually like this book. Quite frankly, I do not care. I love it as deeply as I have ever loved any title and you can put THAT in your own pipe and smoke it.
Mosca Mye didn't quite intend to burn up her aunt and uncle's mill while escaping from the overly sodden town of Chough. This much we know. She did, however, have every intention of freeing a rapscallion caught in the stocks that very night. The man's name is Eponymous Clent and he's a con man of the most florid degree. Mosca grew up learning how to read from her bookworm father and now, orphaned and trapped in a life she does not like, she sees Clent and his beautiful way with words as a means of getting out of town. They won't be skipping out alone, of course. Clasped firmly under her arm is Mosca's faithful and deadly goose Saracen. On their travels the two run afoul of a ship's captain, rescue a lady from a highwayman, and then dig themselves deeper and deeper into the political intrigue and schemes of the town of Mandelion's rulers, guildsmen, and potential oppressors. Who could know that the very fate of a nation rests on a single eyebrowless girl's slim shoulders and the wingtips of a particularly snarky bird.
What my little description here doesn't do is give you an idea of where this book takes place. Hardinge has created what she calls a Fractured Realm. This world bears some similarities to England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but with definite differences. In this land, Parliament has dispossessed all royalty and has been trying to figure out which potential ruler should have the crown for several decades now. In their stead, Guilds of skilled working men have grown strong and powerful. The top three, for the purposes of this book, are The Company of Locksmiths (who can enter any domicile with their keys), The Company of Stationers (who have every right to burn and ban the books they deem heresy), and The Company of Watermen (who guard and police the rivers). Got all that? Cause I haven't even gotten into the religious aspects. In this world every day and hour has a different saint or Beloved. People worship different ones. Mosca, in this case, was born under Palpitattle, better known as He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns. Hence her name. At one point during the height of the political problems a sect known as The Birdcatchers caused unparalleled destruction and chaos all in the name of destroying the religion of The Beloved. They were put down eventually but the country is still reeling from their ascent.
Does this sound like a children's book to you? No? Well bear with me then. There are children out there who read voraciously. For whom a little Tolkein and a little Pullman are nothing but a walk in the park. To these children, I offer up, "Fly By Night". It hasn't any literary equivalent, of course. There's the obvious ode to Dickens here and there (Clent is just a modified dandified Fagan with a pretty tongue) but an even stronger connection to Leon Garfield's old books. If you happen to know anyone who enjoyed "Smith" or "Black Jack" or "The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris", then this book is an obvious follow-up. If you have never read these books yourself, go and do so immediately and don't come back to me until you've safely devoured them. They are brilliant, but Hardinge is more intelligent and well-written by far. Partly this is due to her language. She writes descriptions that are lovely in their simplicity. Sentences like, "How strange it was to look down the barrel of a pistol! It was not exactly fear, more a soft shock, like being hit in the stomach with a snowball". And best of all you like the characters. You like the villains who become heroes and the heroes who become villains. You revel in never knowing whom to trust, just as Mosca never does. You do know one thing though. Whatever storm happens to blow, you can always trust Mosca and Saracen. There's a wonderful certainty in that.
I will end with a small passage from the book in which Clent starts using his tongue to its truest advantage. It is a description of a man. In it Clent says, "Mabwick Toke is the head of the Stationers' chapter in Mandelion. He can quote the whole of Pessimese's `Endeavors,' from Amblebirth to Aftermath, in the original Acrylic. He can speak twenty languages, half of them living, including two from the Aragash Heights, and one that can only be spoken with a coin under the tongue. When he travels, his carriage is lined with shelves so snug with books that the very breeze must squeeze for entry. He once uncovered a league of subversives by identifying a single silken thread in the paper weave of an opera ticket. If wits were pins, the man would be a veritable hedgehog". If you are a person hoping to write a children's book someday, I strongly urge you NOT to read "Fly By Night". Such passages like the one quoted above can only bring you to tears. This was written as Hardinge's FIRST novel for children. It's enough to make you weep and crow with joy all at once. Let us hope that many many more will be in the works soon.