Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge is a YA novel about Mosca Mye, a girl who escapes her desolate life in a village where she is treated with suspicion because of a dangerous skill: knowing how to read. Her flight gets her tangled up with a disreputable Eponymous Clent with whom she travels to the city of Mandelion. There they engage in acts of conspiracy and espionage as rival guilds wage a war of dominance within the kingdom called the Fractured Realm.
How much do I find it amusing that Mosca helped free Eponymous Clent from the village stockade because he’s a poet who uses words like “mellifluous?” He blinded her with
science! words. I love that this is a dominant part of Mosca’s personality, that she gets into these dangerous situations because she is seduced by words, the texture and the sound of them.
It isn’t purely fantasy because no magic at all was used in the story except from the alleged miraculous manifestations by the “Beloveds” (pseudo saints worshiped by the people of that world) and even that is second-hand information. Frances is very adept at world-building, however, from the moist and damp village of Chough, to the sprawling city-state of Mandelion, to the quaint domain of the Watermen where floating coffeehouses are de rigueur.
I found the different guilds to be quite inventive. There are three major ones who play a part in the story: the Locksmiths (who “keep the peace” and can unlock any door or vault), the Stationers (the only ones allowed to publish books. Anybody caught reading unauthorized books are considered heretics and will be punished) and the Watermen (who traffic the river routes and are considered exempt from the rules of the land).
And true to form, my favorite characters are the revolutionaries! There was a scene where an unassuming man called Hopewood Pertellis skulks into some dark alleyway so he can teach street children how to read and write. This should tell you the general intellectual temper of the time. In that scene he read a quote from a book (that later turns out to have been written by Mosca’s father):
Truth is dangerous. It topples palaces and kills kings. It stirs gentle men to rage and bids them to take up arms. It wakes old grievances and opens forgotten wounds. It is the mother of the sleepless night and the hag-ridden day. And yet there is one thing that is more dangerous than Truth. Those who would silence Truth’s voice are more destructive by far.
It is most perilous to be a speaker of Truth. Sometimes one must choose to be silent, or be silenced. But if a truth cannot be spoken it must at least be known. Even if you dare not speak truth to others, never lie to yourself.
In my head I build a room, in which I kept truths I dared not speak. And in this room sometimes I said, the kings will return no more to the Realm. Nobody dares say this but everyone knows this is the Truth. In this room I said, it is good that the king’s tyranny is gone forever. Men would hang me for saying so, but their hearts would whisper all the while that I spoke the Truth. And in this room I said that until the ordinary people choose their own leaders they will suffer and this too is the Truth…
The blurbs in the book compare Mosca to Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua but I find myself liking Mosca more. Mosca is plucky! and brave! because for the better part of her young life she was alone. Lyra lived in the comforts of an academic institution so her rabble-rousing comes off as being spoiled for me.
Oh and there’s Mosca’s pet goose Saracen, champion of the Mandelion animal deathmatch, he’s a keeper!