Although she’s been a name within the young adult horror/fantasy scene for a while now, Frances Hardinge was recently projected into the mainstream public gaze when her novel The Lie Tree won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year Prize. After such a bar was set with her last novel, Hardinge’s fans waited with bated breath for her newest, A Skinful of Shadows. Luckily it is an intricate and masterfully told coming-of-age tale, full of intrigue and more than a little creepy, which lives up to expectations. Plus, it was nominated for the Waterstones Book of the Year Award 2017. Take that, Costa.
A Skinful of Shadows is a dark fantasy novel, set during the English Civil War. We meet our protagonist, Makepeace, as a young girl who lives in the attic of her Puritan uncle’s house, along with her mother. She is haunted by very realistic dreams of ghosts and other terrifying things, and to help her deal with her strange affliction, her mother often forces her to stay in a church overnight to deal with the demons in her head.
Shortly thereafter Makepeace’s mother is killed in a riot and she’s sent off to live as a kitchen hand at Grizehayes, the estate of her estranged and now deceased father whom her mother hated. But the noble Fellmotte family, it transpires, haven’t in taken this little orphan girl in out of the goodness of their hearts; Makepeace, along with the rest of the family, can serve as vessels for the spirits of the deceased, and now they want her around to share her gift. Soon, Makepeace begins to plan her escape along with her half-brother, and what follows is a journey across war-torn England to find her redemption, and her freedom.
Hardinge obviously has a great interest in history, and the political current she describes during war-torn England is both believable and informative, even including nods to the frenetic witch hunts of the time. The plot is rich in cultural and historical detail from the way the Royalists and Parliamentarians divided lands to the description of the Fellmotte kitchens. As Makepeace wanders the landscape following her escape, it’s nice to get a flavour for the countryside and towns of the time. I would have liked to have spent more time discovering the England that Hardinge describes in such close, atmospheric detail. The plot is sometimes a little meandering; however, Hardinge shows she is a master of suspense, throwing a lot of misdirection into the story and keeping the reader turning the pages with some incredibly tense end-of- chapter scenes.
The concept of sharing oneself with a ghost is inspired, and I spent a lot of time when away from the novel picking my ‘dream cast’ of head ghosts. What I especially enjoyed though – despite my game – was the limitations of the gift: You can’t share your body with too many ghosts or your own soul will be crushed and, in the case of Makepeace, the bear that shares her headspace for much of the novel can’t take over her body to unleash his full ursine force, lest her delicate human body be injured in the process.
Speaking of Bear, I discovered that I came to love him with a depth I didn’t realize I could feel for a peripheral character whose main descriptions are that of size and base temperament. Bear stands as a metaphor for Makepeace’s emerging defiance and conversely – as her impending adulthood becomes more apparent – her ability to restrain herself as she learns Bear is a part of her, the animal instinct that she must trust and the strong, defiant voice within herself. Honestly, as someone who lost her mum during her teenage years, I’d have loved a novel such as this to help me discover the metaphorical bear within my own self; to have realised there was a strong, powerful being inside that can never be broken would have been much appreciated during my formative years.
You can wait here for me, Makepeace told Bear. I will come back soon. I need to face this alone. But Bear did not really understand. He was coming with her, of course he was. And after a moment she realized that she was the one being foolish. There was no longer any such thing as ‘alone.’
In fact, it is a wonderful thing also to see the female characters within A Skinful of Shadows as the stronger, fiercer and more resourceful sex as well as the more empathetic, while the menfolk tend to be the weaker characters, showing their cowardice and/or needing to be saved.
A Skinful of Shadows is a heart-warming allegory for growing up and finding your true nature and a tale of family and of control, as well as a skillfully told fantasy tale that’s perfect to read while wrapped up in a blanket sipping a mug of cocoa. A great book for teens and adults alike and one that should be making its way onto Christmas lists ASAP.
Penny Reeve is the publicity manager for Angry Robot Books. You can see more of her thoughts here on Twitter.