This book is every bit as darkly, lusciously, intriguingly alluring as its cover. Despite its historical setting, it is also very much a book for our times.
Frances Hardinge is a deeply interesting writer. Her oeuvre to date can, on one level, be thought of as falling into two 'periods'. Her first works were full fantasies, set in imagined worlds*. Her debut was the delightful Fly by Night, fizzing with quirky imagination and exuberant language play. She continued by developing hugely entrancing fantasies through to the even stranger A Face Like Glass. Her more recent 'phase' began with Cuckoo Song, when she shifted towards a slightly older readership** but also changed from straight fantasy to books with an authentic historical setting, albeit ones that still drew in elements of strange and often disturbing fantasy. This period included her deservedly award winning The Lie Tree and she has now continued it further in A Skinful of Shadows, this time with a setting in the English Civil War.
Language and darkness
There are however several very prominent, and quite wonderful, characteristics which run through all of Frances Hardinge's work and these distinguish it even more than the differences. In all her books are to be found a rich and masterly use of language, a highly original and idiosyncratic imagination, a tendency to darkness and a dry, wicked sense of humour. Indeed her self-projected author image, with long dark hair and an ever-present black hat, seems to echo her writing very well; not quite a witch, but with an almost eccentric air of rather dark mystery and intelligent, thoughtful eyes .
Through her later books, the effervescent language of Fly by Night has matured into a rich mastery of prose. In A Skinful of Shadows, it is this that draws you into her world and story. It is said, at one point, when describing a response to a particular location of the narrative, 'Its colours become the palette of your mind, its sounds your private music. Its cliffs or spires overshadow your dreams, its walls funnel your thoughts.' There could be no better example of this author's command of language, nor any more potent image of the effect that language has in immersing the reader in her vision.
In A Skinful of Shadows too, Frances Hardinge's highly individual imagination and her ability to conjure strange darkness are at their strongest. The story of the book centres on Makepeace***, a young girl who has inherited the 'talent' of hosting departed spirits within her own body. In consequence of this, her malevolent relatives wish to use her as a vessel for their accumulated store of ancestral 'ghosts'. Some scenes, where Makepeace witnesses these spirits being transferred from a dying body into a new human host are disquieting in the extreme, and her deep dread of being posessed in this way both moving and terrifying.
The English Civil War is a palette for the story; an integral element but never its prime focus. Frances Hardinge does not so much have anything to 'say' about war as to invite her reader to reflect upon it. The changing situations in which Makepeace finds herself move her several times from amongst Protestant to amidst Royalist factions and the views she picks up emphasise the way each side justifies its position by describing the same events and characters in starkly contrasting ways. Yet she herself is always concerned with the human fallout of the war, not its politics
As befits its subject matter, the author's more humourous writing is not at the forefront in this particular book. However, it does sometimes run beneath the surface and occasionally emerges, as in the bickering between the disparate 'ghosts' that Makepeace gradually collects inside herself. These include that of a bear, the essence of nature in the raw, whose freedom humans had cruelly quashed when it was alive, but which Makepeace eventually restores by accepting that nature as part of herself.
Frances Hardinge's books are certainly not typical of many classified as 'YA'. They are not variations on the cliches of adolescent, romantic fantasy. They are, if anything, more literature for young adults, as long as that description is not taken to imply any dullness or heaviness. They are for the reader who wants to reflect rather than simply to emote, to be enriched as much as to escape, to be intrigued rather than indulged, to be pulled into a totally original and imaginative narrative by thrillingly skilful writing.
Much more than history
In part, the book is about the danger of being demonically possessed by the past, by ones 'ancestors'. It is a brave and desperate quest to escape that stranglehold and be freely oneself. These demons perpetuate a rigid certainty, a belief in their own righteousness, even when they are wrong. But Makepeace knows that badgers do not have two legs shorter than the other two, whatever the old books say. There is no rigid rule ordained by 'God'. We need to discover for ourselves what is right and necessary for people to live in peace, to discover ourselves without infringing the need of others. We must fight against those who wish to impose an extremist rigidity on ourselves and our world. This it is a book for today and for tomorrow. Makepeace, together with her brother, and all the 'ghosts' who have been freely accepted as a genuine part of herself, must 'find a new world, with its own rules'.
It is also a generous and compassionate book about second chances.
Frances Hardinge is one of the most richly enjoyable writers around. She is fully on song here. This makes A Skinful of Shadows one of the most richly enjoyable books of the year. It pulses with all the distinctive qualities of her writing, but housed in a totally new skin, a compellingly original and imaginative story. It is a skinful of dark but wondrous shadows.
*The one slight exception is Well Witched (aka Verdigris Deep) which is set in the contemporary world but is still essentially a fantasy.
**Although there are, of course, no hard rules about who can read what book. Whatever is right for a particular reader at a particular time.
*** A pious name typical of those given to some Puritans in the 17th century.