The blogosphere has been telling me to read Frances Hardinge for ages. Fly By Night was the first one I heard of, but somehow I never got around to it. And then everyone started talking about Cuckoo Song, and I wanted it, wanted it so bad I went out and got the sample from Amazon.
And finally read it. Loved the sample. Went to buy the book.
Found out that it had been removed from the site.
What? Why? Who knows? Some kind of US/UK rights thing, I assume; it'd been out in the UK for a long time, but was not "officially" out in the US yet? Something like that. I've been stalking it ever since, for months now.
And then: Netgalley! Oh, Netgalley, I love you, in spite of your enabling of my really-starting-to-be-worrisome addiction. The publisher let me have a copy of this to read and good lord, it was so good.
Here's the thing that's cool--it's NOT mind-blowing. Like, this book is not about turning my world upside down and causing me to rethink my understanding of consciousness or free will (I'm looking at you, Ancillary Justice). It didn't bust anything wide open--it just did what it was doing--a book about a girl who begins to realize that not everything in her life is as it should be, and that reality is not what she thought she knew--absolutely perfectly.
Triss wakes up in bed, sick and miserable. Her parents are solicitous; the doctor is not worried. She fell into the river, you see--she even remembers climbing out and stumbling home. But why are her memories so oddly distant? Why does her little sister scream at the sight of her? And what is this wild hunger she can't satisfy?
There are so many good moments in this story, I just want to list them off to explain how they accumulate to make the book amazing. I think what it comes down to is that at every point where things could have been formulaic, that formula was tacitly acknowledged, and then either subverted or happened to fit in with the story.
Take the title. You've got a girl with confused memories, magical elements, and a title about a cuckoo--it's not long before you start thinking about changelings. But this is not a book where you sit through the first act thinking, "God, I hope we're not leading up to a big reveal at the end that she's a changeling, because duh." But no, not even remotely--Hardinge realizes how much of this you are probably figuring out, and she doesn't let you get bored with the details as revealed. You watch Triss come to the conclusions that you've seen coming, and every step down that path is worth it.
There are all sorts of beats that you expect to hit. When Triss realizes that her sister, Pen, might be right about her, she approaches her, and you expect an unlikely alliance to form. But Pen screams at her and sends her away. If later they confront each other and form a relationship, well, it's not the one that seemed obvious and clear from the beginning.
People whom formula leads me to believe will be allies or enemies end up being nothing so clear cut. People make mistakes--huge ones--and have to live with the consequences. People change, just a little bit, just enough to think maybe they can do better.
And every character in the whole book is the hero of his or her own story--you could choose anyone and write a whole book about their adventure. If it was Triss's mother, it would be literary fiction about finding her way through depression and motherhood. If it was Pen, it would be about the biggest mistake of her life, and what sisterhood means. If it was Violet, it would be about setting yourself free from the past. If it was the Architect, it would be about fighting the system to save your people from oppression.
Do you know how hard that is? How enormous an accomplishment, to contain all of those viewpoints, and yet to keep us locked in with Triss, invested in her best interests at the expense of others, or even of what you might like to have happen? And it feels effortless, inevitable, like nothing at all.
This book is the highest craftsmanship. It was an absolute pleasure.