I have to read more Frances Hardinge, you guys! There is no discernible reason why, after loving Fly By Night, I didn’t pick up any of her other books. I keep buying them because they all sound so cool, yet I never actually read them. This has to stop! I’m making a commitment now that I will read at least one more Frances Hardinge book this year. If I don’t, you all get to make fun of me forever and ever.
by Frances Hardinge
Published: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019
eBook: 445 pages
My rating: 9/10
Opening line: They say you can sail a thousand miles along the island chain of the Myriad, from the frosty shores of the north, to the lush, sultry islands of the south.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea meets Frankenstein in Frances Hardinge’s latest fantasy adventure
The gods are dead. Decades ago, they turned on one another and tore each other apart. Nobody knows why. But are they really gone forever? When 15-year-old Hark finds the still-beating heart of a terrifying deity, he risks everything to keep it out of the hands of smugglers, military scientists, and a secret fanatical cult so that he can use it to save the life of his best friend, Jelt. But with the heart, Jelt gradually and eerily transforms. How long should Hark stay loyal to his friend when he’s becoming a monster—and what is Hark willing to sacrifice to save him?
The description of the book, while technically accurate, doesn’t do it justice. This is the story of Hark, a young and rather criminally inclined boy who cons people out of their money, usually with his best friend Jelt. When one of their “missions” goes wrong and Hark is taken by the police, he is to be sold as an indentured servant. Luckily for him and thanks to his gift with words (= lying really well) and ability to read people, he gets off pretty easy and is bought by a brilliant scientist named Dr. Vyne. She takes Hark to a small island where he officially helps out at Sanctuary taking care of old and sick priests. Unofficially he spies on them to get information about the gods and the Cataclysm that wiped them out to Dr. Vynes. Except of course his old life comes knocking pretty soon and Hark is in deep trouble if he gets caught…
Probably the most striking thing about this book is the relationship between Hark and his best friend Jelt. Jelt is obviously manipulating Hark, always giving him the most dangerous part of a job but making it sound like there’s no other way, that Hark owes him. And while it’s obvious to the reader that Jelt is not the loving, caring brother that Hark sees him as, Hark himself still has a long way to go to see his friend for what he truly is. When they find a godware sphere – an enomously valuable piece of one of the dead gods – Hark mostly just wants to sit out his sentence and not get caught spying but Jelt has other plans. Because that ball of godware seems to have magical healing powers and that gives Jelt all sorts of ideas about the boys’ criminal future…
Even though I’ve only read one previous Francis Hardinge book, I have come to expect excellent world building from her and that’s exactly what I got. The Myriad feels like a real place, a set of islands that used to be ruled by the gods of the Undersea. Each island used to have their own patron god who required human sacrifices and came in all terrifying shapes and sizes. Now that the gods are dead, trade rules the world. Submariners wear their scars proudly, people who have lost their hearing underwater are common and therefore a lot of people know sign language. I loved the attention to detail because it made this world feel so real and lived-in.
The Undersea always feels like this mystical place. Its water can be breathed by humans which opens all sorts of interesting doors and both made me want to go down there to explore and stay as far away as I possibly can.
The plot and pacing were spot on. While at first I only worried about Hark getting caught, the book soon turns into a save-the-whole-world kind of thing. The fact that Hark quickly breaks the only rules Dr. Vyne gave him – Lie to everyone as much as you like but never lie to me! and Don’t meet up with your old friends! – makes this a true page-turner. There is always the threat of being caught and being sold off to row on some ship until your body just gives out. In addition, the piece of godware Hark and Jelt found behaves very strangely and they don’t really know what it does or if its healing powers have any unwanted side effects. And then there is Rigg’s crime gang who want to collect their debt, Hark’s conversations with the former priests that yield very little information but potential real friendships, and Rigg’s daughter Selphin who always seems to be a step ahead of Hark.
In short, this was a brilliant, exciting book that does everything right! I honestly can’t think of a single thing to nitpick here. Hitting that perfect balance between thrilling story, character development, world-building, and great writing, this can be read and enjoyed by anyone. Maybe, and I’m grasping here, the language is a tad difficult for younger kids, so maybe the middle grade age group wouldn’t enjoy it as much. But I’m a firm believer that kids are usually smarter than we think and they know what they want, even if (or maybe because) the language is challenging. Hardinge doesn’t talk down to her readers and because of the ocean setting and jargon, I even had to look up some words myself. But mostly, the prose just lets you fly through the story, eager to discover what Hardinge has thought up.
Hark’s character development may have been my favorite part of the book but I also adored the lore, the creative ideas about the gods, and especially the sea-kissed who have lost their hearing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that featured deaf characters, so I was more than excited for Sephin. But if you think she’s only there to be “the deaf girl” you are dead wrong! Selphin starts out as a side character who creates even more trouble for Hark than he manages on his own, but I grew fonder of her with every chapter, with everything we learned about her history and life. She’s also the kind of heroine I would have loved to read about as a teenager because she’s smart and brave and her heart’s in the right place.
Other side characters may not have featured as prominently, so I was all the more surprised at how much I cared for them by the end. Whether it’s the priests that Hark takes care of or his supervisor Kly, even crime lady Rigg herself – they all felt like real people, all with their own lives and agendas, all varying shades of grey. It’s something YA literature often lacks so I was thrilled at how well every single character was done here.
You may have guessed that I wholeheartedly recommend this! Whether you like great character development, original fantasy ideas, or simply a thrilling tale that you won’t want to put down – this is for you. It will also make my Hugo ballot even harder to rank because so far, there hasn’t been a bad YA book among the finalists. As of now (having read four out of six nominees), this sits firmly in my top spot, however.
If you have a recommendation for me as to which Hardinge book I should pick up next, please let me know. I own almost all of them and they all sound fantastic. Any help is appreciated because I definitely don’t want to wait long to discover more by this great author.
MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!