Aug 4, 2011

Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge

Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge

Fly By Night is the story of twelve-year-old Mosca Mye, an orphan from the small town of Chough who decides to take off with con-man Eponymous Clent because he has, as she puts it, “a way with words”. And words mean the world to Mosca: unlike most people in her world she is literate, and she craves the words and stories she hasn’t been able to access since her father’s death.

The setting of Fly By Night is as important as its characters: the story takes place in an alternate version of the eighteenth century; in a world where a long-lasting interregnum has led to a “fractured realm” of city-states precariously controlled by rivalling guilds: the Company of Stationers, printers and book-binders who control the written word; the Company of Locksmiths, against whom no door can be locked; and the Company of Watermen, who control the rivers and those who travel through them.

The setting of Fly By Night is a dark, politically intricate world constantly on the brink of a return to the civil war, religious intolerance and tyranny it has only recently emerged from. Mosca and Clent make their way to Mandelion, the capital of the realm. There they find themselves involved in a conspiracy that might forever compromise all the peace they’ve ever known.

Alex convinced me to finally pick up Fly By Night by saying it was everything Inkheart didn’t quite manage to be. As someone who also found Inkheart disappointing, I longed for a book that had a similar premise and took it further. While I wouldn’t perhaps have thought of comparing the two novels myself, I can see what Alex means. But there’s a crucial difference in how the these works approach the theme of books and their power: while Funke’s protagonist Meggie has a passion for fiction that most booklovers will be able to relate to, Mosca’s case is entirely different. Mosca is an intelligent child who has been starved for words in a way that is outside my experience as an educated inhabitant of the 21st century, and which I found extremely interesting to read about. The following passage will show you what I mean (as well as give you a good idea of Mosca as a character):
‘But in the name of the most holy, Mosca, of all the people you could have taken up with, why Eponymous Clent?’
Because I’d been hoarding words for years, buying them from peddlers and carving them secretly on to bits of bark so I wouldn’t forget them, and then he turned up using words like ‘epiphany’ and ‘amaranth’. Because I heard him talking in the marketplace, laying out sentences like a merchant rolling out rich silks. Because he made words and ideas dance like flames and something that was damp and dying came alive in my mind, the way it hadn’t since they burned my father’s books. Because he walked into Chough with stories from exciting places tangled around him like maypole streamers…
Mosca shrugged.
‘He’s got a way with words.’
Mosca’s love of language and her awareness of the new possibilities of thought that new words afford her permeate the whole novel. This is a serious theme, and Frances Hardinge treats it accordingly. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for humour in Fly By Night. Take, for example, this description of Mosca and Clent’s insults war:
Mosca’s opening offer was a number of cant words she had heard peddlers use, words for the drool hanging from a dog’s jaw, words for the greenish sheen on a mouldering strip of bacon.
Eponymous Clent responded with some choice descriptions of ungrateful and treacherous women culled from ballad and classic myth.
Mosca countered with some from her secret hoard of hidden words, the terms used by smugglers for tell-alls, and soldiers’ words for the worst kind of keyhole-stooping spy.
Clent answered with crushing and high-sounding examples from the best essays on the natural depravity of unguided youth.
How could I fail to fall in love with a book with passages like this?

Though I only realised this a few days after I put the book down, Fly By Night really reminded me of Terry Pratchett: the humour and the way it goes hand in hand with depth, the political and philosophical implications of the plot, the complexity of the world, the allusions to history, and even something about the characterisation sometimes: Saracen, Mosca’s beloved murderous goose, would fit right in in Discworld. However, none of this means I found Frances Hardinge unoriginal – her world, her language and her characters are entirely her own. I only mean she shares one of my favourite author’s strengths, and that is a Very Good Thing.

Fly By Night reads a little like a mystery: it’s full of twists and turns, murder and mayhem, surprises and changing allegiances. It also reads like a coming-of-age story: the story of a bright child starved for stimuli whose sense of justice and truth are put to test by the dark and complicated world she finds herself in.

I’ll certainly be reading more of Frances Hardinge’s work. Thank you Alex for the lovely recommendation.

Bits I liked:
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 heads inside out and warp their destines. They could pick up kingdoms and shake them until they rattled. And this was a good ting, a wonderful thing… and in her heart Mosca was sure Clent knew this too.
And this just cracked me up:
‘I find it hard to believe that a lady like…’ Pertellis hesitated, and coughed. ‘There is something elevated in the female spirit that will always hold a woman back from the coldest and most vicious forms of villainy.’
‘No, there isn’t,’ Miss Kitely said kindly but firmly as she set a dish in his hand. ‘Drink your chocolate, Mr Pertellis.’
They read it too:
The Sleepless Reader, Once Upon a Bookshelf, Bookshelves of Doom, Miss Erin, Random Musings of a Bibliophile



  1. OMG, I need to read this! I actually liked Inkheart although I still haven't read the final volume (it's sitting on my shelf) but your comparison to Pratchett sold me. There's just something about books about words, isn't there?

  2. I hadn't read Inkheart and its successors yet (primarily because of the inconsistency in narration for the audios) but my daughter loved them. This book sounds just a little more precious however, and definitely impossible not to love.

  3. Oo. A good version of Inkheart would be great. I so much wanted to love Inkheart, but I also found it disappointing. Anyway I need to pick up more Francis Hardinge, as she is suddenly everywhere.

  4. Thank you for the review, i always have a hard time trying to decide what to read next.

  5. Oh, this sounds so good, and I *love* the cover. I too was disappointed by Inkheart. On a related note (I'm not sure why it's related) but have you seen that there is a new Flavia de Luce book out? Must read ASAP!

  6. Mosca's situation reminds me a little bit of the alarming problem of word poverty, which is something that happens far more than I had ever originally thought. I like the sound of this book, not only because of it's bookish aspects, but also because of it's intricacy and premise. I also loved the quotes you provided. Thanks for sharing this awesome review!

  7. I had to google Interregnum :)
    I have not heard Inkheart but this sounds very good. It is so different than anything I have ever read. Putting to my wishlist.

  8. Eponymous Clent is such a kick-ass name.

    I couldn't get into Inkheart. I tried, but idk... there was just something missing. I did like the movie, though.

  9. How could you not love a book with passages like that! I'll have to pick this one up.

  10. I also was disappointed by Inkheart, so I just requested this from the library. :)

  11. Great review. I just became acquainted with Frances Hardinge's work when I reviewed Fly Trap, the sequel to Fly By Night, for BookBrowse magazine.( I fell in love with the book and the author. She is, as you say, her own person and writer. I have not read any Terry Pratchett except that today I started Good Omens, which he wrote with Neil Gaiman. I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan.

  12. I like most books that combine humor and philosophical intricacies, and I also liked Inkheart (possibly because I was rather young when I read it... in retrospect, the book does have its flaws). These two factors seem to indicate that I would probably like Fly By Night, though right now it seems mostly based on the premise. The writing seems good, though... maybe I'll give this one a shot.

  13. some good news, the sequel Twilight Robbery (or Fly Trap. I have a lot of trouble with the 3 titles for these two books because Fly by Night would be a totally perfect title to the other one) is even better. And Lost Conspiracy/Gullstruck Island is sort of perfect and awesome. Though Verdigris Deep/Well Witched is perhaps better avoided, unless one really needs a sort of Diana Wynne Jones /Alan Garner book written by somebody else.

    Congratulations on discovering her books, I think she is a fabulous writer.


  14. I agree with Heidenkind. I wish my name was as cool as Eponymous Clent.

    This book looks fascinating!

  15. I'm very glad you liked it (uff!). Inkheart, like Fly By Night was suppost to be a celebration of the power of books and words, but somehow it became (the irony!) too long winded, with bordering-on-bland characters. Mosca, on the other hand, comes alive immediately!

    Such a clever book and kudos to the author for risking going into politics as she did.

  16. Ohh, hooray for books about words and books that have any resemblance to Pratchett. This sounds marvelous. The insult section you pulled? Awesome, and right up my alley.

  17. I was disappointed by Inkheart too, though I think by the end it had gone some way towards redeeming itself. You've reminded me of all the things I loved most about Fly by Night. I fell for both Mosca and Saracen right at the start.

    I'm intrigued by what Hirondelle says about Verdigris Deep - think it's time I got it off the shelf and read it.

  18. I read Inkheart because the premise sounded so great, however I found the book good but not great. Would really be interested in reading another book with a similar concept. Plus I adore Terry Practhett so sounds like this will be right up my street!

  19. Oh, beautiful photos! I love sunny (but not overly hot) days in idyllic gardens :-) Glad that even though the world is going insane, there are some good things to look forward to.

  20. This sounds fantastic! I can't wait to read it :)

  21. I read and adored this one several years back; Frances Hardinge has become one of my favorite authors since then. Her books take some effort, but they're always rewarding in the end. Read The Lost Conspiracy, if you haven't. And The Fly Trap, the sequel to Fly By Night, is just as excellent.

  22. I've wanted to read this ever since I read Verdigris Deep, a book that surprised me a few years ago in many ways. I'm glad to hear that it has now got Nymeth's seal of approval.


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