You will believe three things about Fly by Night by the time you've read to the bottom of page one: first, that the author, Frances Hardinge, draws her characters and settings with a firm, sure hand; second, that she will make you laugh; and third, that the story is not to be taken seriously.
The novel's opening scene illustrates the first two points superbly:
"But names are important!" the nursemaid protested.
"Yes," said Quillam Mye. "So is accuracy."
"What's half an hour, though? No one will know she wasn't born until after sunset. Just think, born on the day of Goodman Boniface, a child of the Sun. You could call her Aurora, or Solina, or Beamabeth. Lots of lovely names for a daughter of the Sun."
"That is true, but irrelevant. After dusk, that calendar day is sacred to Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns." Quillam Mye looked up from his desk and met the nursemaid's gaze. "My child is a bluebottle," he said firmly. (p. 1)
But why stop here? Continue on for another paragraph:
The nursemaid's name was Celery Dunnock. She was born on a day sacred to Cramflick, She Who Keeps the Vegetables of the Garden Crisp. Celery had every reason to feel strongly on the matter of names. Her eyes were pale, soft and moist, like skinned grapes, but at the moment they were stubborn, resolute grapes. (ibid.)
This is wonderful writing, fresh and (yes) crisp in its delineation of the meticulous-minded Quillam Mye and the more practical nursemaid. But it also provokes a suspicion that we will be experiencing whimsy—delightful in small portions, but something that may not be able to sustain a novel that is over 400 pages long. Fortunately, the suspicion is not justified. Yes, the Beloved, the little gods who are worshiped by the people of the land, become a running joke through the novel: Goodlady Prill, Protector of Pigs; Mipsquall, Patron of High-pitched Winds; Goodman Happendabbit of the Repented Oath; St. Squeakle; St. Whillmop; and so forth. The story, however, relies on more than the invention of an eccentric world—Hardinge’s characters are varied and have an inner life: they do not (for the most part) violate credibility by acting randomly or senselessly, and yet, like real people, they are never entirely predictable in what they do or transparent in what is going on in their minds.
Mosca Mye (daughter of Quillam, above) is the twelve-year-old protagonist, an orphan with "an inauspicious first name, the ability to read, and an all-consuming hunger for words" (p. 40). She takes up with Eponymous Clent, poet and rogue, professional flatterer and fleecer. Mosca is attracted to him because he is literate, armed with amazing words, and he is not afraid to use them:
"Ah. Aha. My child, you have a flawed grasp of the nature of myth-making. I am a poet and storyteller, a creator of ballads and sagas. Pray do not confuse the exercise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic."
Mendacity, thought Mosca. Mellifluous. She did not know what they meant, but the words had shapes in her mind. She memorized them, and stroked them in her thoughts like the curved backs of cats. Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too. (p. 21)
Mosca lives in the Fractured Kingdom, a realm of city-states, where the Capital is controlled by Parliament, other cities are ruled by nobility, and guilds enforce an edgy truce between Parliamentarians and monarchists. A mere generation past were the years of the Bad Time, when a fanatical religious sect called the Birdcatchers had been in control and had tried to exterminate, by torture and hanging, belief in the Beloved, in favor of the one god, the White Heart of the Consequence. This grim history plays a part in Mosca's and Eponymous Clent's reluctant entanglement with two of the most powerful guilds, the Stationers and the Locksmiths, as various political players struggle for control of the city of Mandelion. Clent has been coerced into becoming a spy for the Stationers, and Mosca works for him and against him, her sympathies tugged back and forth, as their situation draws near to a crisis. Readers will notice some borrowed elements from English history: the Bad Times suggest the Civil War and the harsh religious strife of that period, and those eighteenth-century London coffeehouses where Dr. Johnson and his literary colleagues gathered to socialize and debate also make an appearance—only here, the coffeehouses are built on barges and travel up and down the river.
Unfortunately, Hardinge seems to have thought, after having created her society of naïve worshipers of the Beloved and cruel followers of the Heart, that readers would still miss the message. At the most inopportune moment, a climactic confrontation between Mosca and an armed agent of the Birdcatchers, the action is stopped dead in its tracks by a too-lengthy denouement and improbable religious debate. It is a pity that Hardinge didn't trust her story more and let it embody her moral dramatically: a key moment that should thrill is flattened into lecture. Still, for most of its length this is a highly pleasurable story that challenges the reader to figure out the true motives and natures of its characters, giving nothing away until near the end, and it unfolds its complications with great glee. Fly by Night, although it is being marketed for children, will also entertain and delight adults with its "wonderful words."
Donna Royston lives and writes in Fairfax, Virginia. Fantasy, with its grand adventure and themes, is her literary love. She has written a novel, The Unmaking, which is in search of a publisher.