Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge. Or, ‘A is for awe’

Fly By Night
Frances Hardinge

reviewed by Carol
Read October 2013
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Fly By Night is a playful, sophisticated story, as suited to the older reader as the young adult.  The story of a twelve-year-old misfit girl–she can read–weaves an antagonistic buddy-trip, a spy caper, guild wars, city revolutions, freedom of the press and a journey of self-discovery into a satisfying book that I wholeheartedly recommend.

I knew I was going to be in for something fun when I read on page one:
Celery had every reason to feel strongly on the subject of names. Her eyes were pale, soft and moist, like skinned grapes, but at the moment they were stubborn, resolute grapes.

Clearly, this is an author that enjoys playing with words.  I understand the simile doesn’t work–grapes can’t be resolute–but that’s exactly why I find it amusing. But Hardringe doesn’t just love playing with words; she’s written a book where themes of reading, words and books have been woven into the core of her story. Just how much does her heroine love words?

Since the burning of her father’s books, Mosca had been starved of words.  She had subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavorless as potatoes. Clent had brought phrases as vivid and strange as spices, and he smiled as he spoke, as if tasting them… 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.

Surely readers can relate.

A barely-spoilery summary: Mosca’s father died, trapping her in a dreary existence in the book-fearing, water-logged village of Clough. A traveler indirectly enchants her with his wily, silver-coated tongue–not because of his lies, but because of his words–inspiring her to disobedience. Escaping Clough, they head to a nearby village, securing access on  Captain Partridge’s suspiciously weighted barge.  Forced off, they catch a ride on a peddler’s cart until encountering a wealthy woman’s damaged coach and a highwayman with a flair for the dramatic. Landing in the village of Mandelion, they take rooms in a ‘marriage house’ and then the real confusion starts.
Since that’s just the first 94 pages, it’s clear that this is a fast paced story. Layers upon layers are added, paralleling Mosca’s intellectual and emotional growth as she experiences the world beyond her village. I found myself challenged, and admit that I was surprised by a number of twists (all probable!) the plot took.

Characterization is fascinating. I’m not a fan of the current trend of anti-heroes, so I appreciate that these characters have the flavor of real people, with obsessions, grudges, hopes and misconceptions. Starry-eyed idealism doesn’t play nearly the role in their decisions that perseverance and determination do. Still, the characters aren’t unconditionally likeable; they have flaws. Mosca is irascible and Eponymous Clent is a con artist with a strategy for every situation. Our first glimpse of him is more telling for the adult readers than the younger:
The mouth was moving, spilling out long, languorous sentences in a way which suggested that, despite his predicament, the speaker rather enjoyed the sound of his own voice.

Yet what I loved most was Hardinge’s prose. It will surely having me buying and gifting this book. Instead of telling us how Mosca and Clent traveled the forest, we get the perspective of the path:
The path was a troublesome, fretful thing. It worried that it was missing a view of the opposite hills and insisted on climbing for a better look. Then it found the breeze uncommonly chill and ducked back among the trees. It suddenly thought it had forgotten something and doubled back, then realized that it hadn’t and turned about again. At last it struggled free of the pines, plumped itself down by the riverside, complained of its aching stones and refused to go any farther. A sensible, well-trodden track took over.”

I don’t know that I would call this fantasy, although the top Goodreads shelf is ‘fantasy.’ But truly, there aren’t really any fantastical elements, only extreme, storybook ones. Even the goose, swaggering and ill-tempered, is goose-like. In fact, in the afterward, Hardinge states her land is “based roughly on England at the start of the eighteenth century.” If so, it’s a history lesson in heavy disguise, the Robin Hood version.

Whimsical, clever, empowering and satisfying, I may just bump this up to five stars. After I buy and re-read.

cross posted at

Heist Society

Heist Society
by Ally Carter

Reviewed by Sesana
3.5 out of five stars

Publisher Summary:

Since she can remember, Katarina's relatives have been grooming her for the family business — thieving. But when Kat tries to go straight and leave the Life for a normal life, she's promptly kicked out of her new school for stealing the headmaster's car and mounting it on the school fountain. Although she could have done it without breaking a sweat, ironically, this time, she's innocent.

In fact she was framed — by another highly-skilled thief. Her friend and brother-in-trade Hale, with his mischievous smile and limitless bank account, has appeared out of nowhere to bring her back to the Life, back to the family Kat tried so hard to escape. Hale has a good reason: A powerful mobster has just been robbed of his priceless art collection and he wants to retrieve it. Only a master thief could have cracked this vault, and Kat's father isn't just on the suspect list, he IS the list. Now, caught between Interpol and a far more deadly predator, Kat's dad needs her help.

For Kat, a consummate thief in her own right, the solution is simple: track down the paintings and steal them back. So what if it's a spectacularly impossible job? She's got two weeks, a teenage crew, and maybe just enough misguided pride to pull off the biggest heist in history — or at least in her family's (very crooked) history.

My Review:

Heist Society is essentially a teen heist novel. Realistic? Maybe not. Hale sure isn't. Fun? Yes, it's definitely that. Good enough to keep going with the series? Well, maybe not.

There are definitely things to like here. The characters, especially Kat, reasonably act and sound like teens who grew up surrounded by organized, career criminals. For the most part, I found their actions and reactions believable, and they were mostly likeable without being dull and overly perfect. I also loved that Carter quietly made this book about more than just a daring art theft. As Kat discovers, the paintings she's been set to retrieve were looted by Nazis in the 1930s. At this point, Carter could have thrown the rest of the story out the window and hammered on this one point. And she didn't. It takes a good bit of restraint to let a (sadly, realistic) plot point about Nazis remain in the background for much of the book.

That said, I was reminded a few times that I'm not really the target audience anymore. Hale is a strange character, complete wish fulfillment for Kat. He's rich, he's handsome, he fits into her world, and he's (apparently) exclusively interested in her. As a whole, he just isn't believable. That said, when he's interacting with Kat and money (specifically, his oodles and oodles of it) isn't entering into the conversation, I like him, and I like how he interacts with Kat. But as a whole, he just didn't work for me. And even at the end of the book, I'm still confused as to why Kat originally left the criminal life in the first place. Attack of conscience, I guess, but what prompted it? I kept waiting for an explanation, and I just didn't get one.

Right now, I'm not sure if I'd read any further in this series. On one hand, I do like most of the characters, and I think Carter is good at writing believable interactions between them. I like the Robin Hood-esque direction that Carter seems to be taking Kat in, and I think this could end up being a fun, exciting series. But I do have my doubts about how things will develop going forward.

Side note: if the idea of looted art really interested you, I'd recommend reading Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World for the real-world debate that Carter only touches on here.