“They had found the edges of each other’s temper, like jagged rocks under a placid skin of water.”
Frances Hardinge is an amazing writer. She is one of my favorites when it comes to word-smithing; never purple, but frequently vivid and full of emotional shading. Unfortunately, she tends to be the fantasy equivalent of Tana French: stories filled with a foreboding atmosphere, enough struggle to make one despair, and characters one would rather avoid.
I didn’t know what to expect with Skinful, which perhaps made my creeping realization of being in the wrong story all the more uncomfortable. It begins with a young girl, Makepeace, feeling her way through her outsider status in a small village. It turns out that the village is populated with Puritans who looks askance at a single mother. One day Mother starts leaving her in the local cemetery so she can learn to use her skills.
“Mother was like this sometimes. Conversations became riddles with traps in them, and your answers had consequences.”
I was curious to see where this would go, with Makepeace and the scratching, scrabbling, little cemetery ghosts, when it ended up taking an unexpected turn. Makepeace and her Mother get caught up in London riots against the King. Quickly we move from a semi-fantastical plot to a realistic and volatile setting, around the 1640s when England was in the midst of a civil war, with all its class and economic overtones. After a couple of terrible experiences, Makepeace ends up Grizehayes, an oppressive and ominous manor controlled by the Fellmotte family.
“Twenty-seven months is long enough for a place to seep into your bones. Its colours become the palette of your mind, its sounds your private music. Its cliffs or spires overshadow your dreams, its walls funnel your thoughts… but Makepeace was used to fighting against the slow poison of habit. Her life with Mother had taught her how to keep herself unrooted. This is not your home, she reminded herself again and again and again.”
I had a hard time with this one. The story was certainly readable while I was in it. However, I lacked the impetus to continue; I felt like every page turn was bringing some new betrayal into Makepeace’s life. There was no joy and little humor in these pages, only–eventually–a sense of satisfaction at taking control of one’s situation. Even the act of learning to read, which is usually an easy place to handhold readers into a book is described in a forbidding manner:
“But when she stared at the letters, they stared back, insect-splats of bulges and splayed legs.”
In that way, I appreciate the story, but can’t say that I loved it. I appreciate the message of success, and I was intrigued by the voices in Makepeace’s head, but it was too dark and grim for me. Fly by Night was far preferable in terms of mood and humor, although I can see many of the thematic seeds that grew into a nettle-patch here.
Many thanks to my buddy-readers, Nataliya, Jennifer and Stephen!