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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Remarkable Way With Words

Fly by Night - Frances Hardinge

Once upon a time in Frances Hardinge's Fractured Realm there was a king who spent a lot of time devising beautiful gardens but who ruled very badly. So in the end the people cut off his head. After that Parliament argued for decades about who should rule in his stead. In the meantime power fell into the hands of the Guilds: the Locksmiths who could enter any building with their keys, the Stationers who alone could decide what books to ban and what to approve, and the Watermen who policed the rivers.

The people of the fractured realm carried on with their daily lives and especially with worshipping the scores of gods whom they called the Beloveds. At one end of the scale there were important ones like Beamabeth, the god of the sun, and at the other end were minor ones like Palpitattle whose sole function was to keep the flies out of the jam. All had their supporters.

Then came the Birdcatchers, a terrifying sect of zealots who spent their time staring into the White Heart of Consequence and who put their enemies to death by the thousand until they were finally driven out by the people and the realm returned to its uncertain equanimity.

That's the background. Now into the story comes Mosca, the feisty twelve year old daughter of a radical writer, accompanied everywhere by her even feistier goose, Saracen. When Mosca runs away from her damp and dreary village and throws in her lot with a wandering confidence trickster whom she has freed from the stocks, she inadvertently becomes involved in a Byzantine plot by the beautiful but ruthless Duchess of Mandelion to seize control of the realm.

Hardinge's voice is entirely distinctive. Her novel teems with invention and she has a remarkable way with words, often finding images that both surprise, and amuse.

"Chough could be found by straying as far as possible from anywhere comfortable or significant, and following the smell of damp."

"It is a very terrible thing to be far smaller than one's rage."

"Mosca and Clent were led to an unsmiling little man of fifty with a gnawed, yellow look like an apple core."

"Fear made everyone look very alive in a strange and fragile way, like the last flare of a candle before it dies."

She is undoubtedly a writer of enormous potential. Nevertheless, I found this novel difficult to read and not particularly enjoyable. The plot is over elaborate and while the writing is often delightful, there's a degree of self-consciousness about it that, for my money, interferes with the storytelling. More importantly, it strikes me as the kind of novel that librarians will love but few children will read.