Frances Hardinge has never gotten the attention she deserves outside of the United Kingdom or in science fiction and fantasy fandom. The good news is, she’s written a lot of excellent books, and every new one is an occasion to talk her works up to people. Her newest novel, Unraveller, shows that she remains in excellent form, but it’s also an exciting evolution in her work. And her new book with Emily Gravett, Island of Whispers, is an intriguing departure from her previous output and in some ways a quintessential distillation of her storytelling style.
Like many of Hardinge’s novels, which are generally marketed as young adult but which are absolutely enjoyable by everyone, Unraveller is set in an early modern-ish secondary world, one in which some people in the country of Raddith have the ability to curse their enemies. This doesn’t happen spontaneously: the curser has to hate someone enough to want to ruin their life in any number of ways (turn into a swarm of bees, set someone on fire, steal their shadow), and they have to be given a curse-egg by a Little Brother, one of the creatures of the Wilds that are not spiders but that look quite like them. The Wilds are a strip of weird woods that skirt Raddith’s coast. The Shallow Wilds aren’t inimical to people, but they aren’t completely safe, and the Deep Wilds don’t welcome humans at all. After Raddith’s government tried to bring the Wilds to heel a hundred years ago and failed, both sides live uneasily under the Pact, which makes coexistence possible.
There are actually two protagonists in Unraveller, a first for Hardinge: the eponymous Kellen, who has the unique gift of being able to pick apart and reverse curses, and his friend/companion/pseudo-sibling Nettle, who was a bird for a while until Kellen unravelled a curse that had been placed on her and her siblings. (Except for her brother, who rejected the cure and who’s still a seagull most of the time. And her sister, who was killed by their other brother while they were birds.) There are a few Hardinge novels that feature toxic friendships, but Kellen and Nettle don’t have so simple a relationship: they’ve stuck together because they’re both desperately alone and they’ve come to rely on each other, but they disagree on a lot of important things because their perspectives on things—important things, like curses, cursers, and what Kellen is doing—are very far apart. Kellen thinks that he’s doing the right thing (and he’s not wrong, either), and never considers the aftermath. Nettle sees the other side: “Powerful people can wave a piece of paper, and the world dances to their tune. It’s the powerless people who need curses. Then we come along and take away the only thing they have left.” (p. 85)
The problem is that Nettle doesn’t voice most of her disagreements or opinions, just as she’s never been able to tell Kellen that some part of her wishes she were still a bird. Kellen, for his part, is under a different kind of curse: he gained his ability to unravel curses after unintentionally harming a Little Brother, which came with the unfortunate side effect of unweaving all woven clothing. Since he grew up in a community of weavers, which are under the Little Brothers’ protection, his family and town cast him out, aged twelve. But as the book opens, it turns out that one of the cursers he’s uncovered and put behind bars at the Red Hospital has escaped. Maybe she’s been liberated by the rumored group known as Salvation, which supposedly lives in the Deep Wilds and offers a haven for cursers, most of whom are reputedly likely to curse again. Maybe she’s going to curse Kellen with an actual curse this time. Maybe she’s part of a plot to overthrow the Chancery and destroy the Wilds.
Nettle and Kellen get dragged into all this by a marsh horseman named Gall, who springs them from jail on behalf of his unnamed employer and who accompanies them, as a dour and unsettling guardian/handler/chaperone, on their mission/quest/travels. Marsh horsemen give an eye to form an unbreakable bond with a marsh horse, which isn’t really a horse (for one thing, they’re carnivorous.) But they mostly do it for money from rich people, who want the marsh horse’s service but don’t want to lose an eye. Gall’s distraught husband shows up several times trying to get Gall to come home, which is mostly awkward for everybody involved, especially Kellen and Nettle.
Hopefully the above paragraphs give something of the flavor of a Hardinge novel: there’s always a delightful inventiveness to her worldbuilding, but in her secondary world fantasies—unlike her historicals (or, in one case, contemporary, fiction—her imagination runs truly wild and she strings together several concepts which would each be enough for one book in the hands of lesser writers. I’ve heard several people make the comparison to Diana Wynne Jones, and Hardinge definitely shares some of DWJ’s absolute confidence in her own concepts, as well as the sheer whackiness of those concepts. For example, whacky or not, Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows (2017) is one of the creepiest books I’ve read. Just because a novel’s individual elements are wild doesn’t mean they can’t also be downright unnerving. Yet, as much as I love DWJ, Hardinge definitely shows her working more readily, which does make for somewhat easier reading on the whole.
Hardinge’s narratives have always been concerned with power, corruption, and lies, and if you know the shape of her stories it’s probably possible to figure out who Unraveller’s ultimate villain is in advance, although she makes a good attempt to throw readers off the scent. Ultimately, though, the pleasure of her books isn’t in playing hide and seek with the villain but in following her plots through to their denouements, which I can almost never anticipate because, again, her worldbuilding is just so ingenious. In Island of Whispers—Hardinge’s first middle grade book, with sumptuous blue, black, and white illustrations by Emily Gravett—the story is admittedly less complicated than a full-length novel, with Hardinge working with only one inventive concept here; but again, the pleasure is in the story itself—in the way Hardinge tells it and Gravett thoughtfully and fittingly illustrates it, and in the way the orphan Milo, like all of Hardinge’s protagonists, rises to the occasion in ways that even he didn’t expect.
The color palette of the book’s illustrations suits the story’s melancholy tone; this may be middle grade, but it opens with Milo’s father, the Ferryman on the island of Merlank, being murdered by men in the employ of a Duke who refuses to accept that his daughter has died. It’s the Ferryman’s job to take the Dead’s shoes and their spirits to the Island of the Broken Tower, where they can move on. On Merlank, if the Dead are left to linger, they reclaim their shoes and wander abroad, leaving destruction in their wake: anyone who sees one of the Dead face-to-face dies, mostly immediately. When Milo’s father is murdered, it falls to the boy to take the boat, along with his father, the Duke’s daughter, and a group of the Dead to the island—with the Duke, his men and his hired magicians in hot pursuit.
Milo’s father thought he was too soft-hearted to become the Ferryman after him, and that Milo’s stolid older brother Leif would take over the role. But as they sail to the island, Milo has no choice but to try to fill his father’s shoes (not literally). Along the way, he realizes that his sympathy for the Dead isn’t a weakness, but a strength. In Unraveller, too, the journey through Raddith is just as enjoyable as the destination: unless you’re an arachnophobe, I highly recommend you read this book. Unlike Kellen and Nettle, Milo doesn’t have quite so far to go within himself or within his story, but his journey is no less meaningful than theirs: just as in Unraveller, in which Kellen and Nettle’s thorny relationship, and the unfortunate cursed people they meet along the way, prove a pleasure to read about in and of themselves, the wonder is not only in the distance travelled but the travelling itself. I’m already looking forward to Hardinge and Gravett’s next collaboration, The Forest of Intent, and as always, to Hardinge’s next novel. And for anyone yet to encounter her, go read another one of her books in the meantime. My personal favorite is probably Gullstruck Island (2008), but you can’t go wrong with The Lie Tree (2015), or Fly By Night (2006), or, or, or …