From what I can tell, Frances Hardinge appears to be the spiritual successor of Diana Wynne Jones. Not that their books were even faintly alike in themselves, but their works are children’s books that are not only widely read but also almost universally – and enthusiastically – loved by adults. I’m not a great reader of children’s books (or even so-called Young Adult) myself, but once in a blue moon I do come across a writer whose charm I find irresistible. Apart from Wynne Jones, that has basically been Patricia Wrede (whose Enchanted Forest series I really should finish some day), and now I can add a third name to that list, namely Frances Hardinge.
Fly By Night is, as far as I can tell, her first novel, and that does show on occasion: the plot is somewhat too all over the place, the points of view could have been controlled more tightly and time and again it is maybe a bit too much in love with its own verbal cleverness. But those are not even minor niggles, those are things most readers will not even notice as they are being swept along by the adventures of the girl Mosca in a world somewhat reminiscent of a post-Revolution France transplanted to early Industrialization England.
The first thing to notice about Fly By Night is the sheer inventiveness of its author; she keeps throwing off brilliant ideas left and right like she had an endless supply of them (and I won’t exclude that she has); there is such an exuberant imagination at work here, with such deep and joyful delight in the pleasures of an exuberant, prolific fantasy that restlessly jumps from one spot to the next, barely staying long enough in one place to create yet another wonderful, magically scintillating marvel before moving on. The reader, unless their imagination is as hyperactive as Frances Hardinge’s, will occasionally have problems keeping up, and will eventually become short of breath as they stumble after her – but in all likelihood they won’t care because of all the strange and wonderful delights they will encounter along the way. This starts right at the prologue where our freshly-born heroine is named Mosca because she was born on the name day of Goodman Palpitattle, “He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns” – the novel pretty much had from that moment on, and didn’t let me go – exhausted and panting, but smiling a broad, happy smile – until the end.
The plot zips along at a similar speed – from the moment she and her goose friend Saracen escape the drab and dreary (not to mention very, very damp) village where she was born by freeing the charismatic scoundrel Eponymous Clent and flee towards the big city, there is high tension and exciting adventures, and once they arrive in Mandelion thing really get underway. The term “rollicking” seems to have been invented specifically for Fly by Night, for nothing really else quite describes the kind of edge-of-your-seat-breathlessly-turning-the-pages-wide-eyed-wonder one experiences in reading it. As you might have glanced from this, I liked the novel rather a lot. And the author it reminded me most of was actually not a children’s author at all, but German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, in so far as reading Fly by Night put me into a state of euphoric dizziness that felt very similar to what I get when reading books like Prinzessin Brambilla or Meister Floh. Needless to say, this is very unlikely to have been the last book of Frances Hardinge that I have read, in fact I am very keen to find out what her other books are like.