The first book I read by Frances Hardinge was The Lie Tree. It was a Saturday impulse buy, not long after payday, and it was a HARDBACK?! It was weird and wonderful and when I was back in town a few days later, I was back in Blackwell’s, picking up the next book on the shelf. The book happened to be Frances Hardinge’s most recent novel A Skinful of Shadows. It is equally as weird and wonderful.
I think these are meant to be children’s books? Or at least, older child-young adults. A Skinful of Shadows started a little strangely – it’s a historical fiction, and a mystery and paranormal, and friendship, and family, and lies, and trust and quite frankly, it’s amazing. I love weird and wacky – this is not only WW, but also Well Written. You’ve got the Weasley Wizard Wheezes (WWW) of the bookish world.
Makepeace has had a pretty weary life, she’s illegitimate, and she’s haunted by ghosts trying desperately to claw inside her soul. Then, when her mother dies, she’s hauled off to her birth father’s estate and put to work in the kitchens with the huge secret that she’s haunted by a bear. Her father’s family have a secret that could break the very world they live in, even as it splinters around them. They’ve allied with the King, but there’s a war coming.
The book is divided into sections, each one about a different phase of the journal – an identity that Makepeace assumes or something that has happened, like clear delineations where the narrative moves from one place or person to another. The font changes aren’t necessary to keep track of Makepeace and her friends but it certainly helps when you’re reading late at night. It feels like an evening book. I found myself reading curled up on the sofa with candles burning and shadows dancing, completely absorbed in Makepeace’s paranormal world in the English civil war. It was a really interesting plot, about good and evil and friendship and family, and what it means to be, well, you.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that the writing is overly complex, or simplistic – what is needed is said and that is that is the sense that I got. The characters were a little Us and Them, and not necessarily Parliamentarians vs Royalists. It did feel like a children’s book, but it was twisted in that amazing way kids books can be. So beware the claws at the window.