Fly By Night

Fly By Night By Frances Hardinge [LibraryThingAmazon]

A paraphrased conversation from your bloggers:

Jess: You know what book was awesome? Fly By Night.

Becky: It really was. Too bad we read it way back in 2005, before we started Active Voice. It totally would have gotten a five.

Jess: Maybe we can do, like, a “this is the kind of book that gets a five” joint review.

Becky: Yes! Jess, you are so smart and also pretty.

Jess: I know.

(Jess may have edited this paraphrased conversation a tad.)

When 12-year-old Mosca falls in with a low-rent poet and conman named Eponymous Clent in an effort to escape her miserable, provincial life, she has no idea that she’ll soon be at the center of a dangerous web of political intrigue and rebellion. But no sooner have Mosca, Clent, and Mosca’s homicidal goose Saracen arrived in the city of Mandelion than Mosca finds herself adrift in a world of radicals, conspirators, zealots, mad dukes, highwaymen, heretics, and murderers. Mosca will need all her cunning and grit just to survive. Luckily, she’s got plenty of both.

Jess: I love this book so much. I’ve read it three times already.

Becky: I have read it twice! It is definitely a book I’ll come back to every few years. Though, uh… hopefully eventually I will figure out who is on what side. If the book has one serious drawback, I’d say it’s that: it’s a plot about intrigue, and while, er… intriguing (very!), it’s also got so many people on so many different sides that it’s hard to keep track of who is plotting against who and why.

Jess: It’s funny, because the first time I read it it seemed totally clear to me, and the second time I read it I was lost, and the third time it started to clear up again. Very mysterious!

And hey, if we’re tackling the flaws now, the only other one I can name, without giving too much away, is that the book comes down pretty firmly on the side of atheism, while simultaneously insisting upon freedom of religion and the inability of mortal minds to know the true nature of the universe. That is, it says, essentially, “anyone could be right so we should all have the freedom to put forth our views…but if you think there is a god, or gods, than you are either a dangerous zealot or a blind child.” Which strikes me as a bit hypocritical.

Becky: On the one hand, I think the message of the book is, above all else, think for yourself and think critically of what people say. That’s a message I can get behind. But when tying it so strongly to religion… Well. What’s strange about me as a reader is that I’m fine with discussing almost any social questions in book — you want to write about sexism? classism? racism? environmentalism? bring it! — but I really do not like reading about religion in novels, regardless of what the religion is or what’s being said about it. I hate the Narnia books; I hate the His Dark Materials books. And while I love Fly By Night, that’s because there’s a lot more story and character to it than moralizing; but I could really do without the moralizing about God.

Jess: I take your point, but the good thing is that there isn’t really any moralizing about God until basically the last page. And I can totally deal with religion in books, as long as the story and the characters take precedence over the message (note to readers: Becky and I will never agree about Narnia). It was the hypocrisy of the final statement, combined with the fairly patronizing tone the book takes towards polytheism/Catholicism (the Beloved of Fly By Night are sort of a cross between pagan gods and saints), that bothered me.

Becky: But, with that said, I can think of literally nothing else negative to say. Fly By Night is simply one of the best books I’ve read in years. And Mosca is one heck of an awesome protagonist. She is smart and sassy — but she’s also naive, so while she makes smart choices with the information she has, the choices she makes aren’t always right. She can be led astray by people who come across as sincere because she hasn’t yet learned how to tell who’s lying. But not only does she make progress as the book continues, but she always, always decides for herself. When I talk about active female characters, that’s what I mean. Mosca isn’t always right, but she’s the one making things happen.

Jess: Absolutely. And while we’re on the subject of awesome female characters, I’d like to quote a conversation on another awesome character, Miss Kitely, who is the owner and captain of the floating coffeehouse on which the climax of the book takes place:

“So, do you want to marry Miss Kitely?”

“If she’d have me.” Blythe looked as if he would like to be angry at the question but had too much to think about…

“She’s got strange eyes.”

“She has very fine eyes.” The highwayman sounded affronted. “She’s…like no one I’ve met before. A real lady. And…” A dreamy look crossed his face. “…she can clean, load and present a pistol in twenty heartbeats.”

Mosca thought this a much better reason to be in love with someone.

At another point the idealistic scholar Mr. Pertellis declares that “There is something elevated in the female spirit that will always hold a woman back from the coldest and most vicious forms of villainy,” to which Miss Kitely’s response is, “No, there isn’t…Drink your chocolate, Mr. Pertellis.” Like Mosca, Miss Kitely is a no-nonsense female character who makes things happen, an eminently practical survivor. In fact, all of the female characters in this book are movers and shakers. They are wonderfully varied, but the thing they share, without question, is agency.

Becky: Another excellent thing about the book is the language. At its heart, this is a book about the power of language and of books; the characters live in a world where books are strictly controlled, very few people can read, and it’s generally believed that reading an illegal book will cause the letters to turn into spiders inside your brain, where they’ll drive you mad. Mosca knows how to read, because her father was a scholar who taught her even though it made her an outcast, and what she really wants is to find new, rich words to read. So not only is the book celebrating beautiful language, but it uses it beautifully, and often hilariously.

Jess: And the world! And the brilliant, brilliant back story! It’s all set in this 18th century-esque kingdom that has been in the midst of a civil war for something like two decades while they try to decide who the next monarch will be, and the way that history intertwines with that of the religion that came in and terrorized the realm for ten years is simply wonderful. Even if the story and the characters weren’t fantastic (which they are), Fly By Night would be praiseworthy just for its setting.

Becky: I love, for example, the Clamoring Hour — many of the Beloved have bell ringers to celebrate them, so to keep the city from total bell-induced chaos at all times, everyone rings bells for a single hour every day, which causes massive chaos for a very short time. It’s a small detail, but a very rich window into their world.

Jess: And the floating coffee houses! And the rivalry between the Stationers and the Locksmiths! And the Ragged School! And…look, just everything about it is awesome, okay?

Becky: Basically, while this is not a perfect book, it is overwhelming good. It’s the kind of book you will get lost in, and can come back to again and again, which we have. And since Jess already has Hardinge’s new book in hand to read, it meets every requirement to get five cupcakes.


    5 Responses to “Fly By Night”

    1. […] have picked it up if I hadn’t been so deeply enamored of Francis Hardinge thanks to Fly By Night. And, well, we can chalk this up to another great quality of Fly By Night, because Well Witched is […]

    2. […] really liked this book! It reminded me a bit of Active Voice favorite Fly By Night, actually (in a good way, that is). The plot is similarly caught up in intrigue and the politics of […]

    3. Rose says:

      Just a heads up and quick query: there has been a sequel published to this and I was just wondering if you guys had seen it or were thinking of reviewing it. Personally I am very excited. But I don’t know if its been released in the states yet. I presume that her other book, Gullstruck Island, hasn’t been seeing as there hasn’t been a review of it here.

    4. Jess says:

      @Rose: Awesome! I didn’t know there was a sequel – I keep meaning to read Gullstruck Island, but my “To Read” piles are ridiculously overwhelming as it is. Someday!

    5. Rose says:

      I didn’t know there was a sequel either, thank goodness for Amazon alerts! I would really recommend Gullstruck Island, its been a while since I read it, but from what I can remember it contained her usual fantastic world building and a hugely interesting look at a colonised island and the culture clash and attitudes that come with that situation. Also, again, a fantastic female protagonist whose main relationship is with her sister.

      But I definitely appreciate the looming dread that is a large “To Read” pile.

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