May 16, 2024

Review: Unraveller: A Novel

Unraveller: A Novel Unraveller: A Novel by Frances Hardinge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is only the third book I have read by this author, but while the first, A Skinful of Shadows, didn't grab me, I loved the second, Deeplight. This book definitely follows in Deeplight's footsteps. Hardinge's writing, purely at the craft level, is lush, precise and gorgeous:

Over thirty years, the marsh-woods had started to reclaim the clearing. The grass was thigh-high and ridden with giant thistles and sweet-knot. Trees stretched out their boughs over the clearing and tried to touch fingers. There was still a ragged canopy of sky left above, however. A few stars winked through the evening haze, and the moon was a half-closed yellow eye.

I also appreciate that she doesn't seem to do series, at least not yet. Almost all of her books appear to be complete, self-contained stories. It's a testament to the strength of her imagination that she comes up with these fresh new fantasy worlds every time.

This story takes place in the country of Raddith, a secondary fantasy world full of magic, intelligent spiders known as Little Brothers, many different kinds of fae and faerie monsters (though they're not called that)--and curses. The monsters live in the marsh-woods called the Wilds, and decades ago humans tried to conquer them:

Raddith is ruled by Chancery, a government of master merchants who believe in honest dealing, level-headedness and worth you can measure. A hundred years ago, Chancery looked at the Wilds and saw only wasted land. Great dykes were built to subdivide the marshes so that they could be drained more easily. Trees were hacked down, the seeds harvested, and smoke used to clear the spiders.

Then the Wilds struck back.

The humans soon found themselves outmatched, and they journeyed into the heart of the Wilds to negotiate with what lived there. The two sides came up with the Pact, an agreement that humans do not want to break. This backstory is summed up in a creepy, atmospheric three-and-a-half-page prologue before we get into the story proper: the tale of Kellen, the teenager who makes his living undoing curses, and Nettle, his sidekick whom he freed from a curse of her own, after she had spent three years living as a heron, cursed by her stepmother. In this world, we discover, curses are borne by violent emotion, "curse eggs" growing inside people until they are released to transform their victims into pretty much anything--animals, clouds, inanimate objects. The cursers are taken away when caught to be imprisoned in the Red Hospital. But Kellen can, as he calls it, "unravel" curses if he can discern the motives behind them.

There is a twisty plot here, borne along by Kellen and Nettle's excellent characterization and the superior, atmospheric writing. One can almost feel the dampness of the marsh-woods and swamps, and hear the noises of the strange creatures that live there. Kellen and Nettle confront those who do not want cursers to be imprisoned away from society, who want them to be able to live with their own people and not be afraid of discrimination. This is a group/cult known as Salvation. Along the way, Kellen discovers the true origin of curses, and realizes he must step up to take responsibility for those whose curses he has unravelled, something he refused to do before. Nettle, on the other hand, must come to terms with certain things she did during her time as a heron, and reconcile herself with her human life.

There is no romance between Kellen and Nettle, which is a good thing: the book as a whole has a dark-fairy-tale feel to it, borne along by very good worldbuilding and the lovely writing. This is a satisfying stand-alone story for children of all ages.

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