Book Review: Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge

At my old job, I received the second book in this series by Frances Hardinge called Twilight Robbery. I can’t understand how people are okay with beginning a series not from the book it starts with but in any old random order. I’ve only ever done it with The Hunger Games trilogy where I read Catching Fire before I realised it wasn’t the book I was supposed to read first. I’ve had a few friends tell me they didn’t get into Harry Potter because they  discovered the series at the second or third book and gave up on the books altogether (it really takes all of my resolve not to lock them in a room with all seven books and only let them out when they’re done reading all of them).

I looked up the first book, Fly By Night, online and its synopsis hooked me enough into ordering a copy (this was before I went on my support local bookstores rant-filled phase) on a midnight train journey back home from work. The synopsis in question speaks of insane rulers in silly wigs, a runaway girl with a goose for a companion and the promise of a tale that highlights the fact that the power of books can change the world. Now how can you go wrong with a book like that?

I only got around to reading the book on my recent vacation and spent many a hour by the beach just flying through the pages (that was a very unfortunate, very unintentional pun). It’s a tale set in a fictional 18th century world which has whiffs of historical fantasy but Hardinge dismisses any such notions at the end of the book warning her readers that “This is not a historical novel. It is a yarn. Although the Realm is based roughly on England at the start of the eighteenth century, I have taken appalling liberties with historical authenticity and, when I felt like it, the laws of physics.”

The book starts with twelve year old Mosca Mye running away from home after she accidentally sets fire to her uncle’s mill. All Mosca wants to do is travel into adventure and read as many books as she can (goals I heartily support). Eponymous Clent, a man with questionable morals, who relies on his quick wits and silver tongue to get him out of trouble or into comforts, attracts Mosca. Clent knows more words than she’s ever heard of in her tiny hamlet. Mosca loves words and the books that give them to her; she collects them and hunts for them and stores them lovingly at the back of her mind. The two form a shaky partnership, with neither quite trusting the other, as they travel the kingdom. What the two don’t expect, however, is being caught right in the middle of a society full of political intrigue and subterfuge at every turn. Our heroine starts off relatively ignorant of world affairs (and those close to home) but ends up getting embroiled in a complicated tangle of conspiracies. In the world around Mosca, words are powerful and subsequently feared. An illegal printing press causes all sorts of trouble, mostly for the Stationers, a group that controls what constitutes as appropriate reading matter, branding everything else illegal. The story follows Mosca as she struggles with the beliefs she’s grown up with in face of the new knowledge she accumulates.

The book is incredibly clever and well-detailed. It’s full of twists and turns, secrets and plots – just when you think you know what’s going on, you turn an unfamiliar corner and discover you don’t know as much as you thought you did. The book has wonderfully witty prose and clever turns of phrase (perfect for a book whose heroine has a penchant for words)  and is extremely funny. It also consists of some brilliantly ridiculous situations and characters like Saracen, a homicidal goose and Black Captain Blythe, a highwayman who accidentally becomes the champion of the poor and unjustly treated, much against his wishes thanks to a ballad that spreads like wildfire and his noble reputation soon precedes his noble deeds.

The book’s clever plot and wonderful cast of characters makes it a perfect read.

Fly By Night

Frances Hardinge

Pages: 448

Price: INR 285

Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books

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