What makes a book a children’s book (or young adult, etc.)? Is it the publisher; the style; the nature of the content? I have never been sure where that line is exactly. The Flame Tree was published by Simon and Schuster young adult but I thought it as compelling as most “adult” novels. I on occasion take flak for enjoying this young adult fare and wonder if many people aren’t aware of the quality that is out there. I am not denying that there are young adult and children’s books that wouldn’t be enjoyable or challenging to adults, but there are also books in this genre that are highly entertaining and even thought provoking.
One such example is Frances Hardinge’s debut Fly By Night. Fly by Night is an imaginative and creative adventure story with an interesting philosophical/historical question weaved in. Despite this being Hardinge’s first book, the story moves at a good pace and the philosophical element rarely disrupts the adventure. The writing is witty and her descriptions of the characters and settings are poetic and quite often subtly wise. What a joy to read a story that is fun, mysterious, and thoughtful all at the same time!
Clearly I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the book as it recently won The Branford Boase Award which is awarded annually for “the most promising first novel to a first-time writer of a book for young people.”
Here is how the book’s flap jacket sets up the story:
Twelve-year-old Mosca Mye hasn’t got much. Her cruel uncle keeps her locked up in his mill, and her only friend is her pet goose, Saracen, who’ll bite anything that crosses his path. But she does have one small, rare thing: the ability to read. She doesn’t know it yet, but in a world where books are dangerous things, this gift will change her life.
Enter Eponymous Clent, a smooth-talking con man who seems to love words nearly as much as Mosca herself. Soon Mosca and Clent are living a life of deceit and danger — discovering secret societies, following shady characters onto floating coffeehouses, and entangling themselves with crazed dukes and double-crossing racketeers. It would be exactly the kind of tale Mosca has always longed to take part in, until she learns that her one true love — words — may be the death of her.
The author’s own site describes it as set “in a re-imagined early-eighteenth century England” and describes the plot this way:
Mosca has spent her life in a miserable hamlet, where her father was banished for writing inflammatory books about tolerance and freedom. Now he is dead, and Mosca is on the run after unintentionally setting fire to a mill. With a delightful swindler named Eponymous Clent, she heads for the city of Mandelion. A born liar, Mosca lives by her wits in a world of highwaymen and smugglers, dangerously insane rulers in ludicrous wigs, secret agents and radical plotters. She is recruited as a spy by the fanatical Mabwick Toke, leader of the Guild of Stationers, who fears losing his control over the publication of every book in the state. Mosca’s activities reveal a plot to force a rule of terror on the Realm, and merry mayhem soon leads to murder…
So that should give you a basic idea of the story and it is an imaginative one. Hardinge pulls it off quite well too. With each chapter headed by an alphabetical title (A is for Arson, B is for Blackmail, etc.) the author pulls you deeper into Mosca and Clent’s adventure. The more you know, however, the more questions arise. Can Mosca trust Clent? What about the dazzling but mysterious Lady Tamerind? Which of the factions and/or guilds really have the best interest of the city and nation at heart? On a more personal note, what kind of future does she want for herself?
These questions create the story’s tension and suspense and focus the narrative, but the main focus is on Mosca. In Mosca Hardinge has created an intriguing character. She is a lover of words and stories and thus desperate for conversation and companionship; for something deeper. Yet, she is also suspicious and conniving at times; full of spit and vinegar, but idealistic and even naive. Dreaming of a safe and stable future, yet hoping for adventure and excitement. It is to Hardinge’s credit that, despite her fantastical circumstances, Mosca never loses the perspective of a twelve-year-old. The ideas and issues may be interesting to adults but she doesn’t come off as a grown adult masquerading as a child.
Hardinge also gives the adventure a suspenseful component by keeping the reader guessing as to who is trustworthy. The story is full of twists and turns; plots and counter plots; spies and double agents. She also keeps much of the symbolism and history shrouded in mystery. Interestingly, by inventing a fictional set of beliefs and re-imagining history she forces us to see the issues differently. A straightforward piece of historical fiction would allow the reader – or perhaps tempt the reader – to choose sides and make judgments based on their personal affinities and beliefs. Instead, Hardinge gives us a fictional and rather fantastical – to modern readers at least – system of saints and shrines that is quirky and fresh.
The question that is always boiling just below the surface, and that sometimes pops up to take center stage, is how society should balance competing claims of truth. The tensions between tradition and what might be called scientific rationalism (or that old bogeyman secular humanism); between freedom and order; between pluralism and identity; run through the story.
A couple of things make Hardinge’s take interesting. For one, she avoids giving easy answers for the most part. The story didn’t slip into an overly-simplified sermon about diversity and tolerance; a facile complaint of “Why can’t we all just get along?” Sure there are good guys and bad guys – and the author clearly has a point of view – but there are also characters who are simply trying to do what they think is best; they might be wrong but they aren’t mere stereotypes used to make a point. This evenhandedness – portraying the choices characters face as real and difficult – makes for a deeper story and avoids smug cant or moralism.
The other interesting component is the way Hardinge tries to present the concept of the “marketplace of ideas” as an admittedly dangerous but necessary middle ground. If I am reading it right, it seems that Hardinge is likely closer to the scientific rationalism side than to the traditional religious side (not the that two or mutually exclusive). But what she thinks should be avoided is the crusading aspects of both sides. Atheists out to purge religion from the public square can be as dangerous as religious groups attempting to impose their doctrinal views on everyone.
At the end of the story Mosca and Clent are reflecting on the momentous events they have just witnessed and end up discussing this very issue. In the end, Mosca argues for the free debate of ideas. When Clent asks her who should decide what is true, she replies:
“Nobody. Everybody.” Mosca looked up at the windows where jubilant people of Mandelion swung their bells. “Clamoring Hour – that’s the only way. Everybody able to stand up and shout what they think, all at once. An’ not just the men of letters, an’ the lords in their full-bottomed wigs, but the street sellers, an’ the muddle-headed, an’ the madmen, an’ the criminals, an’ the children in their infant gowns, an’ the really stupid. All of ’em. Even the wicked, Mr. Clent. Even the Birdcatchers.”
“Confusion, madam. The truth would be drowned out and never heard.”
“People would close their ears and beg to be told what to think.”
“Terrible ideas would spread like wildfire from tongue to tongue, and nobody would be able to stop them.”
Clent was right, and Mosca knew it. Words were dangerous when loosed. They were more powerful than cannon and more unpredictable than storms. They could turn men’s minds inside out and warp their destinies. They could pick up kingdoms and shake them until they rattled. And this was a good thing, a wonderful thing . . . and in her heart Mosca was sure that Clent knew this too.
For Mosca, and I imagine Hardinge, what might be called the libertarian view of the freedom of ideas and of speech is the only way to handle competing truth claims. It may be ugly and messy and difficult, but it is necessary. Mosca to emphasize this remembers a quote from her father:
. . . there is one thing that is more dangerous than Truth. Those who would try to silence Truth’s voice are more destructive by far . . .
I might want to quibble philosophically with this famous solution – let everyone say what they want and truth will win out – but Hardinge skillfully weaves the discussion into her story and eloquently makes the case.
And that is the fundamental reason to enjoy Fly By Night, it addresses some “serious” issues yet still manages to be witty and full of whimsy. Hardinge, like Mosca, is clearly a lover of words and she is an excellent craftsman.
I wish I would have acted like a competent reviewer and noted some of the fine phrases and descriptions I savored as I read, because the book is chock full of them. But alas, I didn’t do so and so you will have to read the book to find your own favorites.
And I highly recommend you do so. Fly By Night is entertaining, suspenseful, and thought provoking. What’s not to like? Who cares if it is a “young adult” book? Good writing is good writing. Right?