Unlike many fantasy and young adult heroes and heroines, Frances Hardinge’s main characters aren’t chosen ones. They’re the other kind: misfits, orphans, oddballs, changelings. They’re young women chafing against responsibilities, sexist societies, the nature of their own existence. These characters are primarily interested in survival, though that focus has a tendency to align with bigger things: freedom, or justice, or knowledge.
After finishing A Face Like Glass, I went head-over-heels for Hardinge, and binge-read everything else I could get my hands on in the span of a few weeks. Each one of her books makes its own argument for why you ought to be reading Hardinge—but since you might not have time to read five or six or eight books right this second, here are three places you might start. These aren’t necessarily my favorite Hardinge tales, but each of them, in its own way, presents a common Hardinge theme: a world reshaped, in large part thanks to the choices of a stubborn girl.
The young women at the center of Hardinge’s stories resist the boxes their world would like to keep them in. Out of powerful curiosity, stubborn intelligence, and their own kinds of bravery, they become the twigs that change the flow of the stream. Neverfell, in A Face Like Glass, is so naive you sometimes might want to shake her, but that’s what comes of being raised in a warren of cheese tunnels. (It’s a rabbit that leads her out, naturally.)
Neverfell has never really talked to anyone but Grandible, the cheesemaker, because there’s something frightfully wrong with her face: it has expressions. In the magical underground city of Caverna, babies don’t mimic adult expressions, but must be taught Faces. The poor get a few (gratitude, humility, a gentle smile), while the wealthy might have a few hundred. But Neverfell’s expressions are endless, and uncontrollable: everyone can read her like a book. And everyone wants to use her and her face like a pawn—an especially dangerous prospect in a city where wines can erase memories, cheese might explode, and the Grand Steward has divided his own mind into two warring parts.
At first glance, some of Hardinge’s fantastical concepts seem to come out of nowhere, but the magical peculiarities of her worlds have their own kind of narrative logic. Caves are full of unexpected or unique things, from glowworms to stalactites to creatures that live nowhere else; they’re dark and you can’t see in them. So it makes a certain sense that magical wines and cheeses come from a cavern city—and that its inhabitants can’t see others’ thoughts on their faces.
Glass is an excellent introduction to Hardinge for the way it balances her runaway inventiveness precisely with her interest in justice and freedom, not just for her heroines, but for those she encounters along the way. Caverna seems like a wonderland, at first, but is essentially a dystopia, harshly divided among class lines: those who make and access the city’s astonishing products, from unusual Faces to perfumes, and those who labor in the Drudgery, their Faces perpetually mild and pleasant. (And that’s not even counting the Cartographers, who think so strangely that talking to them might make a person go slightly mad.) Neverfell’s desire to find out where she came from—and to survive the scheming creeps she encounters—dovetails with unrest in the city, the actions of the legendary Kleptomancer, the downturn of the Grand Steward, and revolution in the Drudgery.
This story clicks along like clockwork; Hardinge is essentially one of Caverna’s magicians, crafting a story stuffed full of ideas that she fits neatly into place. Her true villains, as often as not, aren’t people, but broken societies that have stopped asking whether they might be fixed. Into that world bounds a girl like Neverfell, who has more questions than anyone can answer, and who is not at all inclined to shut up.
“Do you even have the first idea of what my profession entails?”
“Yes,” said Mosca. “You tell lies for money.”
I think I skipped Fly By Night, Hardinge’s debut novel, for many years because it seemed to be another book about how great books are—an honorable kind of read, certainly, but one I’ve encountered a lot. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to this story than summaries let on. It follows Mosca Mye, whose exiled father taught her to read, then left her an orphan only a few years later. Reading, in Mosca’s world, is dangerous, but so is staying trapped in a small town with a crummy uncle and only a temperamental goose for company. So Mosca escapes with the first likely option: a smooth-talking con man named Eponymous Clent.
Her escape is just meant to be a way out of the sad little town of Chough, but as often happens in Hardinge’s books, an escape becomes much more than that. Pirates, highwaymen, obsessive royalty, floating coffeehouses, a forbidden printing press, a secret school—Mosca encounters a lot of new things, and takes them in stride as best she can. Her place at Clent’s side, as a sort of secretary, makes her privy to a lot of happenings, but Mosca has her own take on things, and her own path through the city of Mandelion.
Fly By Night is a grand, wordy adventure full of fantastical ideas that maybe shouldn’t all work together so well, but entirely do. The stakes are high—religious freedom, avoiding rule by unfit people, surviving the deadly Birdcatchers—but the language is enthusiastic, the action rollicking, the heroine a bundle of scruff and book-love and attitude. However, if you detest whimsy, this is probably not the book for you. Sentences tumble over themselves; a goose puts an entire barge crew into a state of panic; people have names like Kohlrabi and Tamarind and, endearingly, Cakes, who makes the little cakes for a wedding chapel.
But you can see, in this book, the framework on which Hardinge builds her later, arguably stronger, narratives. The revolutionary change of A Face Like Glass has its roots here; so does the sturdy, believable mythology of Gullstruck Island. It’s not a perfect book—more than most of her work, it skews a bit toward the one-special-girl mode of coming-of-age fantasy tales—but it bursts with Mosca’s enthusiasm, and with a fervent appreciation of the power of words.
Hardinge’s most recent book feels like the logical next step for her storytelling. It takes place not in a world slightly sideways from England, but simply in England, during the English Civil War—so change is already on the page, whether the characters like it or not. Makepeace, our young protagonist, has one astonishing talent: she can share her mind and body with ghosts. Her mother tries—fiercely, terribly—to train Makepeace out of this skill, but Makepeace’s empathy makes her vulnerable. When she feels a hurting, angry spirit, she lets it in—and find she’s sharing her mind with a bear cub.
And that’s just the beginning (though it’s clearly enough for one girl to deal with, given that Bear has his own ideas about how bodies work and what one should do with them). When her mother dies, Makepeace has nowhere to go, so she searches out the family her mother only ever whispered about: the Fellmottes, who live in a scary old house in the country, and are really desperately not the ordinary aristocracy they may appear to be. The Fellmottes give Makepeace a place to live, but as she comes to realize, she’s basically a goose being fattened for the slaughter. They want her (without being too specific) for her body, not her self.
Shadows, like many of Hardinge’s books, is a story about survival, about how to live in a world that doesn’t care about you. That may sound bleak, but her lively writing is anything but: Makepeace is a stubborn, prickly, defensive young woman, but she has reason to be—and she also knows a kindred soul when she sees one. She befriends another young Fellmotte, James, and they plan escapes; later, she accepts more ghosts, keeping their spirits alive while they help her work to end the Fellmottes’ supernatural tyranny.
Meanwhile, war rages, and for her part, Makepeace essentially rejects the whole thing. Neither side of the war cares about ordinary people, so far as she can tell, and so she has little investment in who wins—but that doesn’t mean she can avoid the conflict. Hardinge paints both sides in shades of gray (and with intriguing lady spies, no less) while keeping the focus on the people caught in the middle—and on how to hold on to your own self when the world gives you little else to hold onto.
Shadows is also a book about the lies on which the world is built, and how those lies can be undone, one at a time if necessary. It’s not the only one of her books to tackle this subject (as the title suggests, much-lauded The Lie Tree is also concerned with truth). But it weaves many of Hardinge’s frequent themes into a different sort of whole, braiding feminism, willfulness, rebellion, resistance, and questions of trust and loyalty into a historical fantasy that in many ways resonates uncomfortably with the present.
Not all battles were reported in the news-sheets, and not all of them involved full armies or neat battle lines under the gaze of eagle-eyed commanders. Months were passing, and there was still no peace. Sometimes there was a great battle that everyone said would decide things, one way or the other. But somehow it never did.
Humans are strange, adaptable animals, and eventually get used to anything, even the impossible or unbearable. In time, the unthinkable becomes normal.
It took me two tries to get through it, and to fall in love with it, but Gullstruck Island (its original U.S. title was The Lost Conspiracy) is a powerful, difficult, beautiful, affecting book. The only reason it’s not officially on this list is that it’s not currently available in the U.S. (Amulet plans to reissue it next fall.) Its heroine is a young girl who’s meant to be forgotten—her name, Hathin, evokes the settling of dust—but becomes something much more when she and her sister become the focus of a conspiracy that seeks to change their island forever. The mythology Hardinge builds into this world runs astonishingly deep—the island’s volcanoes all have tales about what they are and why they rumble, but those stories include geological truths; another story tells Hathin how to find her way through a dark cave. Within a story about survival, more than one story helps our heroine survive.
Though their societies are dead set against most of them, for one reason or another, Hardinge’s heroines change their worlds. It’s not that they’ve chosen complicated, fraught, dangerous, confusing quests, exactly. It’s that there are things that need solving or fixing—problems, lies, mysteries, classism and colonialism or just plain the wrong people in power—and these characters, just by trying to live, do richly deserved things to an unjust status quo. Hardinge’s books are utter delights—thoughtful, sophisticated, clever, moving delights.
Fly By Night, Cuckoo Song, The Lie Tree, A Face Like Glass, and A Skinful of Shadows are now available from Amulet Books. Fly Trap, the sequel to Fly By Night, will be reissued in the spring, along with Verdigris Deep (formerly titled Well Wished).