I remember reading Frances Hardinge’s first novel Fly By Night in a Rome apartment in 2006. I was caught up with 12-year-old orphan girl Mosca Mye and the guilds of the Fractured Kingdom in Hardinge’s alternate 18th century England. I remember almost having to force myself to go outside and explore the sights of Rome. My family, which included teenage twin sons and our teenage daughter, were also engrossed in this atmospheric novel. Fly By Night went on to win the Branford Boase Award and was shortlisted for other awards including the Guardian Fiction Prize.
Hardinge’s sixth, and most recent novel for young readers, Cuckoo Song (Pan Macmillan), has just won Best Fantasy Novel in the British Fantasy Awards, the first YA novel to do so. It’s an extraordinary feat.
Eleven-year-old Triss and (younger sister) Pen’s older brother Sebastian was killed in the War and Triss has taken on the role of being protected by her parents. Sickly Triss wakes up after falling in the Grimmer. She feels different, with a voracious appetite, dead leaves constantly in her hair and a voice in her head counting down days. As her memory falls into place she remembers that she used to love going to school but her parents thought her over-excited and have kept her away.
Her sister, family scapegoat, Pen knows what happened when Triss climbed out of the lake. She still seems to hate her and wants their parents to think Triss is mad but they form an uneasy alliance when Triss rescues Pen at a moment of betrayal.
Dolls speak and seem to be half-alive, letters are delivered to Sebastian’s desk at night, Triss’s diaries are destroyed and scissors act strangely around her. Sebastian’s former fiancée Violet returns to the girls’ lives. Intrigue coats every plot movement.
The writing in first-person creates a distinctive slant to this tale. The imagery is delectable: ‘Day crept in like a disgraced cat, with thin, mewling wind and fine, slanting rain.’ Triss is a unique character who, like the best protagonists, develops and changes as her story unfolds.
Cuckoo Song is an unusual literary gift for girls aged from about eleven to fourteen. Older readers will also enjoy it.