Mosca Mye’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her with her father, the meticulously minded scholar, Quillam Mye. Although Quillam “felt a brief calm at the idea of turning his daughter into a freak by teaching her letters,” he couldn’t help himself. If he’d had no child to teach, he’d have taught the cat. The two lived in the Fractured Realm for eight years, until Quillam died, leaving Mosca in the care of her uncle in the village of Chough.
When Mosca was 12, she’d had enough. When the traveler and storyteller Eponymous Clent came to town, she saw her way out, so she took her best friend, a goose named Saracen, and asked him for a job. But first she had to break him out of prison. And then they had to hurry away because she’d set her uncle’s mill on fire.
This novel by Frances Hardinge reads like fantasy, but there’s not actually any definitive magic in it. It’s just an alternate world with a full, rich history. The people of the Fractured Kingdom pray to gods known as “The Beloved,” but whether the Beloved are real is uncertain. The realm itself has suffered from war between Royalists and Parliamentarians and is now in an uneasy state of peace, presided over by several tradesmens’ guilds. Most notable are the Stationers, who control and approve all written material, and the Locksmiths, who act as law enforcement. Watermen patrol the rivers, there’s a secret school and floating coffee houses and a mysterious highwayman a dazzlingly beautiful sister to a Duke.
But the engine that keeps the story going is the practical and hard-headed and free-thinking Mosca Mye. Mosca was taught to read and loves words. Living with her uncle, she was “starved of words”:
She had subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavorless as potatoes. Clent had brought phrases as vivid and strange as spices, and he smiled as he spoke, as if tasting them.
It’s no wonder that Mosca was willing to risk herself to go away with Clent. He offered what she hungered for. And it’s not just words—it’s travel and adventure and the chance to make a best friend who doesn’t have feathers.
And Mosca finds adventure. Her curiosity puts her in the middle of some complex intrigues, where it’s never clear who to believe. Hardinge shows that Mosca’s lack of exposure to the world has made her vulnerable but her good sense and keen observation skills save her again and again. She has to think things through, and she gets on the wrong track sometimes, but her mind is always working, not accepting everything at face value, but not going into every situation assuming the worst either. She has a wonderful mix of skepticism and openness.
This book is also often very funny. Sometimes Mosca’s straightforward way of talking made me laugh, and then there are things like these crimes, etched into the Chiding Stone of Chough:
“Mayfly Haxfeather, for Reducing Her Husband to Shreds with the Lashings of Her Tongue,” and … “Sop Snatchell, for Most Willful and Continual Gainsaying.”
Saracen the Goose also provides comic relief, although I worried about him whenever Mosca would stow him in boxes and carry him around. Having a goose for a friend can be inconvenient for both girl and goose.
Mosca’s adventures continue in Fly Trap. I look forward to reading it and more of Hardinge’s books!