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.
Fly by Night is astonishingly original, a grand feat of the imagination from a masterful new storyteller.
Fly By Night is the debut of British author Frances Hardinge and was published in 2006. Since then, it has occupied three years running as one of my all time favorite middle grade fantasies. And it just made my review late.
You see, I was paging through my copy in search of quotes to incorporate into this review. Before I knew it, I started re-reading this book. I couldn't help it. I couldn't stop.
I reread it again tonight in one sitting, while the blank blogger new post screen glared at me accusingly. But I don't regret it; it was about time I reread Fly By Night. I haven't for about a month or so, and for me that's been far too long. *
While I was reading this time around, I dogeared every page with something quotable or well-written on it. I had to stop after I'd dogeared 25 pages in a row. The truth of the matter is that Fly By Night is so extraordinarily well-written that I wouldn't hesitate to call it a work of literary genius. It's a classic, it's a monumentally amazing, and it's 483 perfectly-wrought pages that occupy a special place in my reading-heart.
The main character Mosca Mye, a "ferrety-looking girl with unconvincing eyebrows" is both irrepressible and sharp-tongued, defiant and canny. Perhaps best of all, she harbors a love for the written word. As readers, we know that Mosca never intended to burn down her Uncle's mill. In fact, all she remembers is "seeing the wretched lamp sketch a faint letter in white smoke shortly before the dry stems around it started to black and a hesitant flamed wavered first blue, then gold."
But the burning of the mill is not what's important to the story. The significance of that event is that on her way out of town, Mosca Mye attaches herself to one Eponmyous Clent, a flamboyant con-artist who loves words as much as she does. Clent is "plump, in a soft, self-important way" and he talks in a manner that suggests he rather enjoys the sound of his own voice. As far as I'm concerned, I love his dialogue. The words that come out of his mouth are both mesmerizing and wonderful.
I'd like to present A Portrait of Eponymous Clent in his own words: "I am master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic."
Since Mosca is determined to do anything she can to learn words, she does everything she can to stick with Clent. Mosca thinks of words as something to be treasured; "She did not know what they meant, but 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." Clent is her way into the world of adventure, and although he is untrustworthy and unscrupulously dishonest, the two make a a great duo as they traverse around the countryside, involving themselves with gloved felons, a bad-tempered ship captain, an under-the-weather highwayman, the Duke's sister, and the high-powered guilds that hold all the power in the realm. Mosca and Clent tread a fine line between conspiracy and capture.
But what a duo they make! Actually, not a a duo. I nearly forgot to mention Saracen, who I'd like to kidnap from the velvety pages of this story and make my pet. Saracen is a goose and Mosca's only friend. He also happens to be nothing short of devilish. I practically died from laughing when Saracen single-handedly commandeered a boat--captain and sailors still aboard--and when he won a fight against a civet. Saracen is priceless comic material--what's more funny than a deadly goose?--and much like other elements in this book, adds to the humor. For Fly by Night is quite a funny book, along with hordes of other charms it possesses.
Through it's entirety, Fly By Night holds such beauty in between it's pages that it's startling and wondrous and devastatingly brilliant, all at once. This book is so complex, so carefully crafted, that every plot line integrates seamlessly into the story. The Fractured Realm, the name of the world Hardinge creates, is so three-dimensional and inventive that readers will be transported into a world that's based of 18th century England; a world that's so intricately detailed that there is no doubt in my mind that it exists somewhere, if I could just find it. Hardinge has created something with elaborate political intrigue: three guilds vying for supremacy and a Parliament that has been debating over the next king for decades. The religious mythology of Beloved gods who occupy such niches as "She Who Keeps the Vegetable of the Garden Crisp" and "She Who Frightens the Harelip Fairy from the Childbed" is endlessly imaginative. The culture and customs of this invented world are frankly amazing: floating coffeehouses, a town where water bleaches everyone's eyebrows, and a world where books are regarded with such caution that people are afraid to touch words that have not been approved by the guild.
Here are some favorite quotes--I can find no other way to express Hardinge's genius:
I''ll stop before I quote the whole book.
"Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad."
"The world is like a broken wrist that healed the wrong way, and will never be the same again."
"You, sir, are a romantic, and I'm afraid the condition is incurable. "
"If wits were pins, the man would be a veritable hedgehog"
"To the east and west rose two spires, the city stretched between them. Behind a long pie crust of crumbling wall clustered a mosaic of roofs, and a great dome that seemed in the dull light to be glossy and ethereal as a soap bubble. To the west along the waterside unfinished ships bared rib cages of stripped wood the sky. The creak and crack of the shipyard was a faint as a cricket orchestra."
If there's any book that's a "reader" book, this is it. It's clear that Hardinge has a love affair with words herself, much as her starring duo does. Every effortlessly crafted paragraph, every sentence, every word, is evidence of this fact. This book will be a joy to anyone who revels in beautifully crafted language.
I'll say this now--as you've no doubt tired of my incredibly long-winded, rambly review-- it does not matter what age you are or what genres you like to read. It does not matter. If you are a reader--someone who delights in the art of the written word, who wants a book that will wow you, read Fly By Night. Read it and love it, as I do.
*I'm one of those obsessive readers that once I get a favorite book, I reread it constantly.