Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge

If you've read my blog you know that Frances Hardinge is one of my auto-buy, drop-everything-and-read-now authors. So I can't believe that I didn't know she'd come out with a new book in October. I love the feeling of suddenly having a new favourite author's book to read! It's like finding a 100$ bill in the pocket of your coat!

I dropped everything as soon as I found out about A Skinful of Shadows and read it in two days. It was everything I've come to expect from Frances Hardinge: rich, layered setting, fierce, lovable characters, and beautiful, poetic-without-being-flowery writing.

If you've read Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric novellas, then you'll be familiar with the central premise of Hardinge's novel: Makepeace has the ability to house other souls inside her (in this case ghosts rather than demons, but it amounts to the same thing). It's a scenario that is usually confrontational, as the ghosts try to take over from their host, but Makepeace, like Penric, discovers there's another way to go about it.

Hardinge loves to play with names, and our heroine Makepeace has more than her share of them. We never find out the name she was born with, just as Makepeace doesn't know who she truly is or what she's capable of. She's labelled with a Puritan name so she can fit in with her Puritan aunt and uncle, but she never quite fits in, and her defiance and temper seem to belie her name. She's given a noble name by Royalists who want to use her, and she chooses yet another when she escapes them, deliberately naming herself after Judith who cut off her enemy's head. But in the end, Make Peace is what she proves most able to do. And she defines herself, thank you very much.
"I am not changed," she said. "You never knew me. None of you ever knew me."
Classic Hardinge character!

The setting was one of the more unique aspects of the book: I'm pretty sure I've never read a fantasy set during the English Civil War. (Pretty sure I've never read anything set during the English Civil War.) It's a period of history I know almost nothing about, but with her deft descriptions and deep understanding of context, Hardinge plunged me right into the middle of the Catholic/Protestant, Royalist/Parliament conflict. The political happenings are tied in quite brilliantly with the plot, as Makepeace is thrust from one side of the conflict to the other, and each side tries to use her in pursuit of their own agenda.

The huge old manor house of Grizehayes is a character in its own right: spooky, looming, a prison for Makepeace but also a home, with nooks and crannies only she knows about. Makepeace's inhabitation of Grizehayes, the way she turns its oppressiveness inside out and makes it serve her instead of containing her, is a sort of inverted metaphor for what she does with the ghosts who inhabit her. By knowing them, she stops fearing them; by allowing them to know her, she turns them into allies.

Okay, as I write this I'm getting more and more impressed with this book. Layers of theme interwoven with plot and character and setting—man, she's a good writer! I have to stop this post from becoming a dissertation!

Just go read it. You'll love Makepeace, her courage, her compassion, her desperate attempts to be herself. You'll love Bear—I don't want to spoil anything, but the scene where they meet is just—wow. The villains are super creepy, there are spies and disguises and plots and counterplots, and you never know who you can trust. Suspenseful, exciting and supremely satisfying.

Seafood chowder, because it's something Makepeace might have made in the kitchen of Grizehayes, and because it's rich and flavourful with multiple textures so that every bite is a little different but it all works together as a harmonious whole. Also I made some last night and there are leftovers for lunch today, so yay!


  1. Wow. This is an author I don't know. If I were to choose a book on title and cover alone, this would be it. Both are terrific, but your review seals the deal. I will definitely be looking for this. Thanks for the post.

  2. THIS BOOK WAS SO GOOD. I was super into it. There's a line towards the beginning that says children are tiny priests of their parents, watching every word and gesture for signs of their divine will, and it just blew me the fuck away. Frances Hardinge does nothing but get better and better with every book.