Oct 9, 2013

Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge

Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge

And below them, Toll-by-Night set about folding itself away, like a stilt-legged monster into a closet. Its inhabitants crept back into the unwanted places, the crannies and cellars and forgotten attics, and locked themselves in.
A bugle blew. A silver jingling swept through the town, sealing away all bad reputations and bitter-tasting names.
Another bugle sounded. And Day swept in like a landlord, not knowing it was only a guest in Night’s town.
Twilight Robbery (published as Flytrap in the US) is the sequel to Frances Hardinge’s brilliant debut novel Fly By Night. You don’t have to have read Fly By Night to enjoy this book, though you’ll probably want to get to it sooner rather than later because it’s made of 100% pure unadulterated awesome.

Here’s what you need to know: the protagonist of both novels is twelve-year-old Mosca Mye, who is smart, resourceful, starved for words and stories, and the proud keeper of a pet goose with murderous tendencies. Mosca is an orphan, and in Fly By Night we watch her escape from her hometown with conman Eponymous Clent, partially because he promises her access to a world she’s always longed for — a world where words are a little less scarce; a world where her lifelong suspicion that the universe is interesting and worth getting to know could perhaps be confirmed.

In Twilight Robbery, Mosca are Eponymous are still travelling together. After leaving the city of Mandalion in the hands of the radicals in whose revolution they took part, Mosca and Eponymous make their way to the city of Toll. As the name suggests, Toll is a place of passage. It gives access to the cities to the East, but only for those who can afford to pay the price to cross the bridge. Anyone who manages to get into Toll but has no money to spare ends up trapped between its walls. Mosca and Eponymous’ fund-gathering scheme involves warning the Mayor of Toll of a sinister plot to kidnap his daughter Beamabeth — the most beloved girl in all of Toll — and force her into a marriage. The two manage to get as far as being granted an audience with Beamabeth and her father, but from then on nothing goes exactly as they’d planned. There’s more to Toll and its inhabitants than meets the eye, and Mosca is going to need all her wits if she’s to escape with her life.

Every time I read Frances Hardinge I wonder why, in a world that contains novels of hers I still haven’t read, I ever bother with anything else. Why do I do this to myself? This is why I read: because I live in perpetual hope that the next book I start will be as smart and gripping and satisfying as this one. If Fly By Night was brilliant, Twilight Robbery is possibly even better. Allow me to do my best to explain why:

The thing that makes Toll so sinister is the fact that it’s not just one city: it’s rather two separate cities occupying the same space. One surfaces in the daytime; the other after night falls. Toll-by-Day and Toll-by-Night exist in complete segregation: the ‘nightlings’ hide away and don’t officially exist in the hours between sunrise and sunset, and the reverse is true for the citizens of Toll-By-Day. Additionally, if you belong to one of the cities it’s nearly impossible to make your way to the other. If this premise makes you think of China Miéville’s The City and The City, you are not alone. The main difference is that Hardinge’s take on the two-cities-in-one concept is more overtly about inequality manifesting itself as actual physical segregation.

Toll-by-Day is a reasonably wealthy, clean and well-ordered city, and its citizens trust that everything will continue to go well as long as the Luck of Toll (about which I could say much more, but spoilers prevent me) remains on their side. However, as Mosca thinks shortly after her arrival, if you look beyond the surface the city looks slightly unreal. There’s the fact, for example, that even though the streets are clean you never actually see anyone taking the rubbish away. The reason for this is that any unprestigious tasks are left to the Nightlings. Why do anything you think of as unpleasant when there’s an underbelly of desperate, needful people at your disposal?

Toll-by-Night is a place of poverty and hopelessness and despair — the perfect environment for crime to thrive. The citizens of Toll-by-Night occupy the night city because they were born under the wrong Beloved (a patron god or goddess of sorts): in short, an arbitrary system of attributing worth deemed them unlikely to ever amount to anything, and so no opportunities were ever provided to them. When they fail to seize the chance to make their own fortune in conditions where no such chance was ever really available, this is used as a justification for assigning them to Toll-by-Night in the first place. Sounds familiar?

Our Mosca Mye, born under Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns, is assigned to Toll-by-Night. When her three days visitor’s pass to the daytime city expires, she’ll be forced into the terrifying night time realm where everyone believes her to belong. The contempt in which the inhabitants of Toll-by-Day hold her grates on Mosca, but because this is not the only thing she’s ever known, she manages not to interiorise it. Instead, she finds herself giving local rebels a lesson in true radicalism:
“I mean…” Mosca took a moment to think of all the radicals she had met. “The heart of being a radical isn’t knowing all the right books, it isn’t about kings over the sea or the Parliament over in the Capital. It’s… looking at the world around you, and seeing the things that make you sick to the stomach with anger. The things there’s no point making a fuss about because that’s just the way the world is, and always was and always will be. And then it means getting good and angry about it anyway, and kickin’ up a hurricane. Because nothing is writ across the sky to say the world must be this way. A tree can grow two hundred years, and look like it’ll last a thousand more - but when the lightening strikes at last, it burns, Mr Appleton.”
Oh Mosca — could I possibly love you more? The fact that our heroine believes this at twelve is something we’re shown more in deeds than in words, and that’s part of what makes Twilight Robbery so brilliant. Mosca (and to an extent even shameless conman Eponymous) attempts to live by her code of ethics, but this is perpetually juggled against the sheer need for survival in a world that crushes empathy with “fear, desperation and soul-weariness”.

Which brings me to something else: back when I wrote about Fly By Night I said it had strongly reminded me of Terry Pratchett, and the same as is true of Twilight Robbery. It’s not so much that Hardinge’s and Pratchett’s styles are similar; it’s more that if you love PTerry for the same reasons I do, you’re likely to be all over these books. It’s not about the jokes (though Frances Hardinge is also very funny) or the poking fun at genre conventions; it’s mainly about their willingness to write protagonists like Mosca Mye or Vimes or Tiffany Aching or Granny Weatherwax: incredibly smart, admirable, and deeply committed to not treating other people like they don’t matter. They’re kind people in the truest sense of the word, even if they’re outwardly prickly and not stereotypically nice. I love characters like this, so there was no way Mosca was going to fail to win my heart.

The last thing I want to discuss is absolutely spoilerific, so if you mind spoilers and haven’t yet read Twilight Robbery you should probably skip over this paragraph and the next. Here it goes: I was very impressed with the narrative sleight of hand Hardinge performed in relation to Beamabeth, even if part of me is very wary of the Pretty-and-Popular-Girl-Turns-Out-To-Be-Evil-and-Uses-Her-Charm-to-Manipulate trope. Here’s why the revelation about Beamabeth didn’t bother me as much as it almost certainly would have in a different story: first and foremost, because Twilight Robbery is full of girls and women. I’ve often explained that I’m reluctant to ever just say, “you can’t have stories where women are x because that makes all women look bad”, because what I really want is for all the stories about women to exist out there, just like we get to have multiple stories about men in myriad roles.

The reason why such generalisations still take place, though, is that girls and women are unrepresented in media. As long as being “the girl” still passes for a distinctive trait in an ensemble, of course the rare female character will be seen to represent all women. Surround a manipulative young woman like Beamabeth with other fully-realised, complex women, though, and you will greatly minimise the odds of that happening. Secondly, I enjoyed the fact that the sleight-of-hand only works because Beamabeth is so easy to underestimate — and she’s easy to underestimate because of sexist stereotypes. For all her insight, Mosca is guilty of this herself, and her realisation that Beamabeth is in fact dangerously smart is only horrifying because it goes hand in hand with her realisation that she’s monstrous. And yet — and this is the key thing — she’s monstrous not by virtue of her girlish charm, but because her life of insularity and extreme privilege (which is a direct result of the superior worth arbitrarily attributed to her at the expense of people like Mosca) has made her callous. I would absolutely love to hear what anyone else who has read the book thinks of this, thought.

Spoilers over! In sum, if you like incredibly smart heroines, linguistic pyrotechnics that flow naturally and are an absolute joy to read (Hardinge’s prose!), political intrigue, complex fantasy worlds where power dynamics are key, and sociopathic geese, then what are you waiting for? Get thee to a bookshop or library and discover the wonder that is Frances Hardinge.

Favourite bits:
She felt a tickle against her fingers and reflexively clutched at the bracelet tangled in the cords binding her wrists. The three carved totems that dangled from it were images of the Little Goodkin, the skeletal children said to protect any child endangered and lost in the darkness. Another child would have been chanting Fenfenny, friends defend me, and finding comfort in the rhyme. But Mosca had emptied her darkness of comforting imagined faces, and such words were hollow to her. She clutched at the bracelet because it had been a gift from a coffeehouse mistress named Miss Kitely in a precarious moment and still warmed her with a memory of friendship, but even this was small consolation.

Mosca said nothing. The word “damsel” rankled with her. She suddenly thought of the clawed girl from the night before, jumping the filch on an icy street. Much the same age and build as Beamabeth, and far more beleaguered. What made a girl a ‘damsel in distress’? Were they now allowed claws? Mosca had a hunch that if all damsels had claws they would spend a lot less time ‘in distress’.

‘We’ was such a comforting word. ‘We’ meant weathering things together. Camaraderie. Safety in numbers. All the things that Havoc and Jade and Perch had talked about. And yet Mosca had seen all these things collapse within an hour of the dusk bugle.
This was Toll-be-Night, and here alliances were bridges made of eggshell. Mistress Leap seemed kind — was kind — but kindness could be eaten away by fear, desperation and soul-weariness just like everything else.
They read it too: Eve’s Alexandria, The Book Smugglers

(You?)

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6 comments:

  1. Friends tell me this was even better than Fly by Night and I'm really curious. The only reason why I still haven't read it is that I'm waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the audio version.

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  2. I love girls who are easy to underestimate! Even if, yeah, they turn out to be evil in the end. I still really love that trope. I love it because women very frequently get underestimated, and it is awesome to see them knowing that's going to happen and using it to their advantage.

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  3. Alex: Add my voice to your friends'! I hope they do release it on audio at some point.

    Jenny: Yes, exactly. And although this particular character is unpleasant that alone made me root for her a tiny little bit.

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  4. It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained ! thank you for this great post :)

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  5. I read about this not too long ago on Eve's Alexandria, and now here -- I really think I must put this on my list! Thank you so much for the marvelous review!

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  6. always top ... I love your super nice blog :)

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