Review of the Day: Unraveller by Frances Hardinge
Who is your favorite author? It’s the kind of question an adult asks a child or a child asks a visiting children’s book creator. It suggests a world of extremes. A world in which when you have a favorite anything it’s a single solitary favorite. This applies as much to favorite ice cream flavors or favorite movies as favorite colors or favorite types of dog. But when you ask a reader who their favorite author might be, you’re opening up a whole can of worms. Who could possibly decide such a thing? I mean, besides me, of course. Cause my favorite author is Frances Hardinge and there’s not much more that needs to be said about that. To my mind, she has never written a bad book. She wrote one relatively weak one early in her career, but that was practically decades ago. Since that time her books have exemplified a kind of relentlessly creative cacophony of controlled chaos that I simply can’t find in another writer. And though her publisher will market her as young adult, her books don’t really fit neatly into any age bracket. Smart kids can devour her works. Adults with a penchant for books where you find yourself repeatedly saying, “How does her brain come up with that stuff?” adore them. So imagine my delight this past March when I was in Bologna, Italy for a book fair and I saw, across a room, a poster for Hardinge’s latest title: Unraveller. Granted, it would take practically a year for the book to come out in the States, but by gum if that’s what it takes then that’s what it takes! The result? Folks, I don’t particularly care to sound like a broken record so I’ll just say this: If you would like to read a story you’ve never read before, one that flies by the light of an internal logic so straight and true that you never doubt for a moment that this is a real world, Unraveller is your next read.
The country of Raddith has any number of notable features, but the fact that its citizens are capable of cursing one another has to be right up there. Kellen should know. Over the years this young man has managed to make a living out of unraveling people’s curses. The ability to curse, you see, is a gift bestowed upon people by a spider-like race of creatures called the Little Brothers. Kellen has the ability to figure out how to undo such curses, and he is accompanied by Nettle, a girl he once rescued from her own curse, who has relentlessly stuck by his side ever since. Together, the two of them are approached by a member of the government to uncover a great conspiracy. Someone is releasing cursers from The Red Hospital where they are held. And one of those cursers has it in for Kellen. In fact, he may be cursed already.
I like sinking into a Hardinge book knowing absolutely nothing. Not even reading the flap copy. It makes for a uniquely rewarding experience. And, to my delight, I discovered that this particular book was attempting something wholly original. At its heart, this is a detective novel. You have our two heroes, one the detective who can unravel each case they come across and other the moral compass that keeps him pointed north. You have evil on both a governmental level (always a topic Hardinge enjoys) and on a smaller more cult-like level. But through it all our two heroes are interviewing suspects, solving crimes, and trying to keep from getting gutted along the way. So much of the fun comes from watching Kellen gather the clues together to find the connecting (forgive me) thread. It’s not Agatha Christie but it ain’t half bad. Sometimes you catch on to what Kellen’s after before Nettle does, but most of the time you’re with her, floundering along in his wake.
The mystery aspect is relatively new. And I’ve read Hardinge enough over the years to pick up on many of her regular themes. There’s the quiet female heroine that has a lot more going on under the surface than anyone suspects. There’s the surprise villain, originally so sympathetic. But even when you think you’ve seen this author cover these paces before, she always has a surprise up her sleeve. For example, I’ve never seen her tackle the issue of trauma as head on as she has here. The cursed, cured by Kellen, are left with incredible PTSD after all that they’ve endured. So it is that Kellen’s greatest flaw is how he cures and runs, leaving them to pick up the pieces of their inner and outer lives on their own. But as you read, how each cursed person deals with this trauma varies hugely. It’s amazing to watch two entirely different characters believe that the other one has managed to figure out how to live in the world, when both of them are just scraping by from day to day. And while she’s certainly created traumatized characters in the past, I was awed by the sheer number of understandable motivations Hardinge has been able to conjure up on these pages. With an enormous cast, even the worst of the villains here are comprehensible. Terrible, yes, but you see where they’re coming from.
Another theme? Hardinge is a fan of islands. This makes a fair amount of sense. There’s always a bit of water where she’s concerned, and islands make for convenient locations for fantasy destinations. They’re compact with little potential for expansion. Islands have played a large part in Gullstruck Island (originally called The Lost Conspiracy in the States), Deeplight, and now Unraveller. And unlike, say, one of the planets in Star Wars she supplies each island with multiple types of terrain and environments. Even more fun, though, is watching her construct each specific fantasy world. Leviathans as gods in Deeplight or sentient volcanoes and out of body experiences in Gullstruck Island. Here, the magical beings bear far more similarities to the faeries of one of my favorite Hardinge books Cuckoo Song than anything else. Hardinge understands faerie worlds well. They operate by strict rules that you must understand or pay the price. They aren’t inherently evil but they do not wish you well. There are bargains to be made and your wits are required at all times. She’d never really done anything with spiders before though, so I guess the time was nigh.
If I haven’t made it clear before, it’s Hardinge’s writing that I come for, time and time again. I don’t reread authors very often, but I reread her. Part of that is, as I’ve mentioned, her iron grasp on thematic issues. But I also love her sympathy for regular people. It comes through in every book she does in some way. In this particular case, the key to all of this is how the curses were originally intended as a gift, meant to give power to the powerless. But when you hand hurt people unlimited power, they are prone to making horrible, life-altering, impossible mistakes that they can’t take back, even if they wanted to. This is a book about good intentions gone awry, and how hard it can be for someone in a position of power to give to people without it more power without, y’know, mucking everything up. Only, y’know. With sentient spiders.
I’d never really had this reaction before but the book series that Unraveller reminded me the most of as I went through this story was the wonderful but almost completely forgotten Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy by D.M. Cornish. Not thematically so much, but in terms of traveling the countryside where your relationship with the monsters and other creatures is given a set of rules that the hero, inevitably, tramples. Also, y’know, colonialism, but that goes without saying. I never expect to dislike a Frances Hardinge book anymore but the degree to which her books work in difficult themes, like the trauma seen here, have only gotten increasingly astute. I don’t know how she does what she does. And, happily, as long as she keeps churning books out as remarkable as this one, I’ll never have to figure it out.
On shelves January 10th
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review (though my sister also recently got me a British edition from London as well, to complete my set).
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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