Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
08 June 2011
Frances Hardinge introduced the world to the wonderfully named Mosca Mye in 2005 with Fly by Night, her debut novel. Mosca is a character readers of children's literature will find familiar: a bright young girl in a time and place with no use for such a creature; a child who has enjoyed a liberatingly eccentric upbringing only to be parceled off to uncaring relatives following the death of her father; a youth who escapes into the big, bad adult world and finds it full of adventures and lessons. Her companions on this journey were Saracen, a spectacularly ill-tempered goose who has eyes only for Mosca, and Eponymous Clent, a portly wit, bon vivant and, most of all, liar, who finds his destiny inextricably tangled up with hers. They are a pretty fractious trio; Mosca and Clent's marriage of convenience is characterized by resentment and distrust on both sides:
It occurred to her that she and Clent were a good deal like clock hands, one large and one small, often pointing and striving in opposite directions, but always linked and bound to come into line sooner or later. (p. 68)
And Saracen is hardly universally loved:
Clent's expression went through a number of different changes. Suspicion, wonder, astonishment and at last hope chased one another across his face like successive sunrises lighting an opulent and rolling landscape.
'You have finally sold the goose?' he asked in hushed tones. (p. 58)
This all made for a fiery debut in which the three found themselves in enmeshed in a conspiracy to decide the fate of the Fractured Realm, an alternate version of the United Kingdom. There are, I assume, lots of links to our own world—the Reformation, the Glorious Revolution, etc., etc.—but my schooling never went back further than the Agricultural Revolution so frankly anything could have happened in Britain prior to the invention of the seed drill. Helpfully Hardinge says in an afterword that "I have taken appalling liberties with historical authenticity and, when I felt like it, the laws of physics."
So she is obviously up for fun and games and it is an interesting surprise when Twilight Robbery (Fly Trap in the US), Hardinge’s sequel following two unrelated novels—Verdigris Deep (2007) and the frankly awesome Gullstruck Island (2009)—reveals itself to be something like a children's primer for The City & The City by China Miéville.
Before we get to that though, Mosca needs to put the old gang back together. Saracen has gone rogue in the woods whilst Clent, not for the first time, finds himself in chokey. Here is the roll call of his crimes:
Wanted for thirty-nine cases of fraud, counterfeiting, selling and circulating lewd and unlicensed literature, claiming to be the impecunious son of a duke, impersonating a magistrate, impersonating a horse doctor, breach of promise, forty-seven moonlit flits without payment of debts, robbing shrines, fleeing from justice before trial, stealing pies from windows and small furniture from inns, fabricating the Great Palthrop Horse Plague for purposes of profit, operating a hurdy-gurdy without a license. (pp. 7-8)
This is very much adventure number two: there is a brief and skillful rehearsal of Fly by Night and then it is down to business. Within pages Mosca is scrobbled and finds herself pressed into service as a scribe at a secret Pawn Brokers auction. There is never a dull moment with Mosca Mye. Reunited, the trio once more find themselves seeking refuge, this time in the town of Toll where—as the name suggests—entrance (and exit) is only granted on payment of a hefty fee.
Where the link to Miéville's multi-award-winning novel comes in is the extreme form of nominative determinism practiced by Toll. The people of the Fractured Realm worship a bewildering array of the Beloved, small gods who are each allocated a small fraction of the year. Whichever Beloved you are born under, you take your name from. For example, Mosca was born under Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies Out of Jams and Butterchurns ("mosca" is Portuguese for fly). In Toll, your name determines your status because it is in fact two towns: Toll-by-Day and Toll-by-Night. If you have a day name then you are beyond reproach and can idly stroll the spotless streets; if you have a night name then you are scum, locked away until dusk when you emerge into a world of drudgery and fear. (Mosca is a night name and Eponymous is a day name which is convenient for the plot but also appropriate and nicely prefigured.)
Whereas the citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma are mentally segregated, the citizens of Toll-by-Day and -by-Night are physically segregated. The result is the same though, people who can't see each other, even when they are standing in front of each other:
'You and your young friend are wandering around where you don't exist, and people take unkindly to that sort of thing round here.' (p. 158)
The segregation of the town is facilitated by the Pawn Brokers, who are revealed to be agents of the Locksmiths, chief villains of Fly by Night. Boo, hiss, etc. It is no surprise to readers familiar with Hardinge's work that not only is the system completely irrational, it is hopelessly corrupt. Unfortunately the mechanics of Toll's twice daily transformation never rang true for me. The image of the town locking and re-locking itself two totally different configurations is compelling but it never seemed believable (perhaps this is Hardinge playing fast and loose with the laws of physics again).
Otherwise, there is an enormous amount to admire in Hardinge's novel. Chief amongst these is Hardinge's invention. Too often children's authors—and writers of adult genre fiction—are content to have one idea and spin off a novel (or even a series) from that alone. The creation of Toll alone is about half a dozen ideas wrapped into one and powers a many-stranded plot but it is full of peripheral ideas that seem to emerge organically from her world (and worldview).
There is also Hardinge's wit, a vital part of literature that too often adult genre fiction seems afraid of. Although there is no real reason for doing so I'd like to take a moment to quote my favorite line from the novel: "Revenge is a dish best served unexpectedly and from a distance—like a thrown trifle" (p. 448). That is Clent speaking and his puffed up verbiage and knowing pomposity are a delight throughout the book. The same is true of his verbal sparring with Mosca; it is amusing but it is also affecting and, at the heart of Twilight Robbery, there is this relationship between a pair of orphans:
'For Beloved's sake, try to keep track of your bonnet,' Clent broke out at last. He pulled Mosca's bonnet from a chair and dropped it on to her head. 'Running about bare-headed like a ragamuffin . . .' His voice trailed off.
'You'll need to find somebody else to tell you when your plans are bleedin' stupid,' Mosca said gruffly. 'Not that you ever listen to me when I do.'
'How I shall survive without the perpetual barbs of your conversation I cannot imagine,' mused Clent with a little frown, as he set Mosca’s bonnet straight. (p. 247)
Where Twilight Robbery runs into trouble is with its main moral: appearances can be deceptive. This is a true moral, a sensible moral and a lesson worth teaching to children. It is also the moral of all Hardinge's previous novels. It is also the moral of huge swathes of children's literature in general. The familiarity of the moral therefore becomes a problem. Much more of a problem, however, is how literally it is taken.
Because if appearances can be deceptive then they must be deceptive and in that case if something looks good then it must be bad. In Fly by Night, Mosca meets a beautiful woman whose poise and style entrances her. At the end of the novel, it turns out this woman was behind everything. In Twilight Robbery, Mosca meets a beautiful woman whose poise and style entrance the whole town, although not Mosca this time. Still, she seems surprised when, at the end of the novel, it turns out that—yes—this woman was behind everything. In contrast, our heroine is an asexual tomboy street urchin who is regularly described as "ferret-faced."
Again, this is not unusual within children's literature. It is how Miéville seeks to wrong-foot the reader at the beginning of his children's novel, Un Lun Dun (2007); it is heavily present as a theme in Philip Reeve's wonderful Traction Cities series (2001-6); and Scott Westerfeld managed to build a whole series out of this idea with Uglies (2005-7). The sentiment is noble but explicitly drawing a link between beauty and morality seems not only wrong but frankly dangerous. Yes, beauty does not equate with virtue but that is because there is no link, not because there is a negative correlation. Having used Toll as a device to criticize such arbitrary demonization, it is strange to see Hardinge coming perilously close to doing the same herself.
It is a shame and it is particularly a shame because it is one the few times you are reminded that you are reading a children's novel. Usually Twilight Robbery is subtler and Hardinge is much better when she extends her moral: appearances can be deceptive so look harder:
'I meant . . .' Mosca took a moment to think of all the radicals she had met. 'The heart of being a radical isn't knowing all the right books, it isn't about kings over the sea or the Parliament over in the Capital. It's . . . looking at the world around you, and seeing the things that make you sick to the stomach with anger.' (p. 339)
At the same time, there are limits to the complexity of children's literature. There are also limits to its cynicism and at times it seems Hardinge is chaffing against both:
'To be young is to be powerless, but to have delusions of power. To believe that one can really change things, make the world better and simpler in good and simple ways. To grow old is to realize that nobody is ever good, nothing is ever simple. That truth is cruel at first, but finally comforting.'
'But . . .' Mosca broke in, then halted. Clent was right, she knew that he was. And yet her bones screamed that he was also wrong, utterly wrong. 'But sometimes things are simple. Just now and then. Just like now and then people are good.' (p. 455)
I love children's literature but I would also argue that it is a form of constraint for the writer. When I read a novel like, say, Patrick Ness's Monsters of Men it fills my heart with joy but it also makes me want an adult science fiction novel by Ness. The same is true of Frances Hardinge. Still, whilst I will continue to wonder about what else Hardinge might produce in what will hopefully be a long and exciting career, I will also look forward to the return of Mosca Mye and Eponymous Clent. To say nothing of the goose.