July 6, 2018
Hugo Reading 2018: A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge
This is another of those books that I had trouble getting into, because it's so very English. (I had the same problem with Philip Pullman.) To be clear, this is not because it's a bad book--I liked this better than La Belle Sauvage--but it's due to the prose style, which is chilly and remote and precise and sporting a rigid British lip. This is the first book by Frances Hardinge I've read, so I have no idea if this is her normal way of writing. Nevertheless, this made it hard for me to relate to her characters.
This book is set in 1642 England under King Charles. The time period seems to be meticulously researched, with a wealth of detail about people's everyday lives, both the higher and lower classes. (One thing that stuck with me is that the protagonist hated taking a bath--she thought the water would seep into her pores and drown her. She usually just wiped herself off with a rag. I'm sure she was a blast to be around, body odor-wise.) Our protagonist, Makepeace Littlefoot, is the illegitimate daughter of a high-class family that has, shall we say, some peculiar characteristics, which she unfortunately inherits. To be specific, certain family members carry the ghosts of their ancestors in their heads, and as each generational "vessel" ages and dies, the person next in line is forced to contain said ghosts, which invariably results in the suppression and eventual death of their own personalities. It was this fate that Makepeace's mother, fifteen and pregnant, tried to spare her daughter when she ran away.
But Makepeace's mother dies early in the story, and her uncle and aunt cannot cope with her, so they send her to her father's family at Grizehayes. There she gradually discovers just who and what she is. This coming-of-age tale is set against the backdrop of a rebellion against the Crown, with her father's family, the Fellmottes, taking the side of the King to protect their interests (and prevent being killed as witches).
There is a good sense of pacing to this story, and the author definitely knows how to write action scenes. Still, this book never crossed into "can't put down" territory for me, due to the remoteness of the characters. This problem persisted throughout, until I hit the very last pages. At the end of the story, there is a sudden switch in POV, to a new character named Hannah. In just two and a half pages, we are given Hannah's story, how after the death of her husband she joins the army by pretending to be a man, Harold; is taught to fight; and following her death, her ghost is scooped up by Makepeace's half brother, James. James, having been freed by Makepeace (and various ghostly allies she collects along the way) from his own nasty brain-sucking spirits, is traveling with Makepeace with a new purpose: saving the ghosts of those "who usually don't get second chances." This makes the book end on a high but frustrating note, as I would rather have read Hannah's story than that of the ostensible heroine.
This book was okay, but no more than that. It definitely didn't knock my socks off.
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