Fly by Night by Francis Hardinge

Mandelion: rocked by political instability, ruled by a Duke of questionable sanity, and controlled by competing guilds.  The old religion has been abolished, books have been banned, and a ferrety-looking girl with transparent eyebrows from a backwater town finds herself in the thick of the intrigue.  See, it all starts when her father, political rebel and persona non grata around Mandelion, commits the ultimate sin-gasp-and teaches his daughter to read.  Mosca, our plucky heroine, subsequently is obsessed with words, collecting them like pearls on a string and waiting for opportunities to use them, which are sadly few and far between in her home town.  After her father’s death, she is shuffled to her aunt and uncle’s home, where she promptly (and accidentally) becomes persona non grata herself when she burns down their mill.

After the mill-scapade, she sets out on her own, with her best and only friend, Saracen, the homicidal goose.  She meets up with Clent, a con man with a lyrical way with words, and they soon find themselves enmeshed in a political tangle between the warring Guilds.

Please don’t confuse political with boring here: this is one of the funniest and most interesting young adult books I’ve read this year.  Mosca is hilarious, and her maniac goose-pet is even funnier.  I mean, grown men tremble in the wake of this goose.  It’s no ordinary feathery, bread-crust-munching bird.  A lot of the humor of the story comes from Saracen and his scrapes.  He’s stuffed in a hatbox, enters (and wins) a sketchy bet, and steals a boat.

For a new author, Hardinage has constructed a fantastically detailed backstory and history for her novel’s setting.  However, she is careful to explain it to the readers: you feel privy to her inside knowledge, which is sometimes tricky for authors to manage.  I hate when authors keep referencing historical events in their texts that readers don’t know about: it feels like pure snobbery to me.  Hardinage avoids all that, and manages to balance a fairly complicated plot, rife with backstabbing and side-changing on the part of the characters, with humor. 

I love that each chapter is cleverly titled, beginning with a new letter of the alphabet.  If you’re into 18th century England (the setting is roughly based on it), spies, words, or geese, definitely check this one out.  If you love Bartimaues, Johnathan Stroud’s sarcastic demon-genie, or the complicated (but interesting) plot stylings of Cornelia Funke, try this one out, too.  There is a reformed highwayman, made good by the transformative power of poetry, a curly-haired cake-maker, and an illegal orphan school, all combined for a book you don’t want to miss.  It made the School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2006 List and won the Branford Boase award for the same year: an award I’m unfamiliar with, but will be researching for you soon. Happy Reading!

Hardinge, Francis. Fly by Night. HarperCollins: New York. (2008). 512 pp. Ages 11-15.

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