Title: Fly By Night
Author: Frances Hardinge
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Publisher: Harper Collins US / Macmillian UK
Publication date: First published in 2006
Paperback: 438 pages
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.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 of the Fly By Night series. Book 2, Twilight Robbery/Fly Trap was released earlier this year.
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I was visiting Foyles (AKA the most wonderful bookstore in the UK) and when I asked the (very knowledgeable) friendly bookseller for recommendations of awesome MG (my exact words) she jumped at the chance and took me straight away to this book and waxed poetic all over it. She had me at “murderous goose”.
I am overcome with Imperious Feelings demanding that I find the Right Words to write this review. Fly By Night is Absurdly Brilliant. This is not an overstatement.
How else could I possibly qualify a book that features a main character named Mosca[1. “Mosca” being the Portuguese (my mother tongue) word for fly (as in “house-fly”, not “to fly”) which makes the title of the book super awesome to me. I am amused by the silliest things, I know] Mye whose love for words is both impetus and trademark? Whose love for words is the driving force toward a life of High Adventure in the company of a smooth-talking charlatan named Eponymous Clent and a murderous pet Goose named Saracen? Whose journey takes her through completely unpredictable twists and turns in a political game where no one knows who is ally or foe?
If not brilliant, what other word could I possibly use to describe a book that is defined by original, unusual worldbuilding as well as Impressive Intellectual Sharpness?
With regards to the former: Fly By Night is set in an alternate 18th Century (but not quite) where years ago, after getting rid of its monarchy, the Fractured Realm plunged into a gruesome Civil War when Birdcatchers – a radical religious movement – came to power. Ten years after all Birdcatchers have been killed (or have they?), the Realm is ran by different Guilds of Tradesmen. The Guilds’ power have been growing exponentially, especially that of the Stationers Guild (who control all printing materials, anything without their seal is deemed illegal) ; the Locksmiths Guild (who have the keys to every door) ; and the Watermen Guild (who control all movement along the river). The power balance is precariously held together by a truce between all Guilds and even one small wrong move could start a whole new war. Mosca and Clent (and Saracen) find themselves in the middle of this complex game of power which is complicated by a Duke who is slowly going mad and whose sister has Ideas of Her Own. Not to mention the emergence of an illegal printing press that has been spreading Illegal Radical Words all over the Realm.
The latter comes from the fact that this is a book with a main character who loves words in a world that fears them. Being a book about words – their importance, their potential, their beauty – one of the most brilliant things about it is how the author brandishes her words like Weapons of Mass Construction.
From the Thought Provoking:
Brand a man as a thief and no one will ever hire him for honest labor – he will be a hardened robber within weeks. The brand does not reveal a person’s nature, it shapes it.
Via the Utterly Hilarious:
(…)Mosca and Saracen shared, if not a friendship, at least the solidarity of the generally despised.
All the way to the Extremely Acute:
‘Where is your sense of patriotism?’
‘I kept it hid away safe, along with my sense of trust, Mr Clent. I don’t use ‘em much in case they get scratched.’
And the Plain Beautiful:
‘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…
‘He’s got a way with words.’
Fly By Night is a book that provokes, incites and invites the reader to participate in a wordily love-fest. Granted that at times, this comes across as slightly heavy-handed especially towards the ending but this was simply not enough to make any damage to the immense love I feel for this book.
But that is not all! For Fly By Night is also Coming of Age of the Highest Quality. Mosca’s journey is superbly executed by exploring her loneliness, her perceived uniqueness (which is not true at all, given the truths that she unveils) as well as the connections she forms with other people (especially the Cakes. How could I not love the Cakes?). Her arc has moments of Utter Despair, Sad Mistakes as well as Great Bravery.
Most of all, I loved the development of the relationship with Clent and I loved the bond they formed over a shared loved for words (for better or worse). Take this incredible moment where they have a fight:
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.
Isn’t this Staggeringly Good Writing?
I had a lot of fun reading Fly By Night and as you can probably see, a lot of fun writing this review too. I freaking love when that happens, those are the best kind of books. Fly By Night is a Totally Awesome Book and I already got the sequel because one is not enough for me: just like Mosca, I too, want more story.
“Do you even have the first idea of what my profession entails?”
“Yes,” said Mosca. “You tell lies for money.”
“Ah. Aha. My child, you have a flawed grasp of the nature of myth-making. I am a poet and storyteller, a creator of ballads and sagas. Pray do not confuse the exercise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic.”
Mendacity, thought Mosca. Mellifluous. She did not know what they meant, but the 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. But lies too.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Alien on a Rampage by Clete Barrett Smith
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