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Friday, May 23, 2008

Fly By Night Celebrates the Power of Words

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Quillam Mye didn't leave his daughter with much - just an old pipe and the outlawed ability to read. While the pipe proves useful only for chewing on thoughtfully, Mosca Mye's love of words makes her long for adventure and most of all, books. Of course, there is one more reason she must escape the town of Chough. She explains the situation to outlaw Eponymous Clent, whom she agrees to free from the stocks only if he will take her with him:

"Purely out of interest," Eponymous Clent asked, "what so
bewitches you about the idea of the traveling life?"

There were many answers Mosca could have given him. She
dreamed of a world without the eternal sounds of glass beads being shaken in a
sieve and goblins chuckling in the ravines. She dreamed of a world where
her best friend did not have feathers and a beak the color of pumpkin
peel. She dreamed of a world where books did not rot or give way to green
blot, where words and ideas were not things you were despised for
treasuring. She dreamed of a world in which her stockings were not always

There was another, more pressing reason though. Mosca
raised her head and stared up the hillside toward the ragged treeline. The
sky was warmed by a gentle redness, suggesting a soft but radiant dawn.
The true dawn was still some three hours away.

"Very soon," Mosca said quietly, "my uncle will wake up.
An' when he does ... he's likely to notice that I've burned down his mill"

So begins the delightful adventure that is Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge. The plucky Mosca grabs her "homicidal" goose Saracen, and follows Clent, a storyteller with a great many secrets. As the two travel toward the city of Mandelion, Mosca discovers several disurbing things about her traveling companion. Still, her choices are few - stick with Clent or return to Chough and face punishment for arson. So, despite her misgivings about the wordy Clent, she accompanies him to the city. When he attempts to abandon her, Mosca knows she needs to "get the dirty on 'im. Somink big" (45). She discovers letters from the Stationers' Guild naming Clent a spy - now she can blackmail the wordsmith into letting her stick around.

While being held up by highwaymen on the road to Mandelion, Mosca comes face-to-face with the powerful Lady Tamarind. Through Clent's snores, the powerful lady asks for Mosca's help. She explains that her city of Mandelion is on the brink of a guild war - with no current king or queen, the people swear allegiance only to their various guilds. The city crawls with spies, cutthroats and dangerous men. How can "Mosca the Housefly?" be of service? Lady Tamarind charges her with spying on Clent. So, Mosca's goals in Mandelion are now two-fold - find Mandelion's hidden school and report suspicious activity to Lady Tamarind.

Little is what it seems in Mandelion, and Mosca soon finds herself wondering who she can trust. Can she put her faith in Clent, or is he a scoundrel better left to the gallows? And, what about Lady Tamarind - is she a friend or a foe? With all the guilds fighting amongst themselves, which one is right? Most importantly, who runs the secret printing press that has everyone up in arms? And how can Mosca save it before the Stationers' outlaw it along with all the books in the land? Can Mosca save words, the secret school, and most of all, herself? The plucky 12-year-old will risk everything to restore words and free thought to the illiterate city.

In the tradition of Inkspell, Fly By Night entertains while celebrating the power of words and books. It also looks at the devastation that can overtake a land ruled by censorship and superstition. Regardless of its heavy themes, Fly By Night is a first-rate adventure story peopled with quirky, lovable characters. Its lengthy discussions of politics in The Realm detract from the overall story, confusing the reader with too many character and place names. Still, it thrills with continuous action and masterful writing. If you read the book for no other reason, read it for this - Hardinge's prose is absolutely delightful.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. The political passages really did weigh it down for me, and I actually abandoned the book at one point because I was so confused as to who was who and where was where. Since I loved Hardinge's writing and her subject, I eventually picked the book up again. I'm glad I did, because Fly By Night is a fun, quirky little book that delights on so many levels. Like Inkspell, The Book of Lost Things, and The Book Thief, it reminds us that words are little things, with great and sometimes terrible, power.

Grade: B+

Some of my favorite bookish passages from the novel follow:

"Words, words, words. This was her gingerbread cottage" (133).

"Clent shuddered. 'That is a judgment upon me for seeking to extend your vocabulary. If I hear you using such words to describe a duke in my hearing again, I shall put you on a diet of dry verbs and water until you have learned to speak more wisely. In Mandelion, an ill-chosen word in the wrong company may cost you your neck" (110).

When Mosca was asked why she took up with Eponymous Clent, she explains: "Because I'd been hoarding words for years, buying them from peddlers and carving them secretly onto bits of bark so I wouldn't forget them, and then he turned up using words like 'epiphany' and 'amaranth.' 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 ... " (288)

"Words were dangerous when loosed. They were more powerful than cannon and more unpredictable than storms. They could turn men's heads inside out and warp their destinies. They could pick up kingdoms and shake them until they rattled. And this was a good thing, a wonderful thing ... " (480).

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a great book! I haven't heard of it before. Thanks for the review. Looks like another one going on the TBR list!


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