Book Review: Fly by Night

Fly by Night
by Frances Hardinge


Frances Hardinge is one of precious few who are able to write without accountability.  That is, she gives us something to read without ever showing herself.  Fly by Night is an engaging display of wit (both by its protagonists and its writer), comedy, and devilry; but the overall plot falls far short of what’s promised and dooms the book to the realm of stories-that-should-have-been.

On the one hand, Hardinge has a surprisingly firm grip on lovable characters.  Mosca Mye, her con-man companion, and the ill-tempered goose Saracen wreak havoc on a world of controlled knowledge, with hilarious results.  Unlike so many writers, Hardinge has the good sense to give her characters free reign and allows them to move without strings or guidance.  It’s rare that characters compel themselves forward as well as hers do, and their energy is refreshing.

It’s too difficult to summarize the plot of Fly by Night.  Instead, it might be more accurate to say that the story is a series of schemes that fall just short of success.  The tale begins as Mosca flees her hometown of Chough for a chance at a more exciting life, rescuing an imprisoned con artist and burning her uncle’s mill to the ground in the process.  From there, it’s a visible effort for all of the characters to stay on their toes through a murder, a four-way guild war, and too many betrayals to count.

Hardinge’s utter lack of pomposity and her willingness to spare her characters their dignity is enough to blur her gender.  I hadn’t realized she was a woman until the end of the second chapter, at which point I had to check the jacket flap to be sure.  The sort of easy confidence with humor is usually a hallmark of men’s comedic writing, and it’s nice to see a woman attack it so well.

Unfortunately, Fly by Night is far from perfect.  The chapters are named A-Z, much like Sue Grafton’s mystery series, and they suffer the same sort of ill-inspired titles.  The subplots never quite manage to disentangle themselves, even by the end of the book.  There are too many guilds and alliances to keep track of, and Hardinge has no interest in getting us up to speed.

The cover of the book is stamped with a warning that reads, “Imagine a world in which all books have been BANNED!”; but the issue is largely invisible throughout the story, and the cover itself seems like an afterthought.  Hardinge’s attempt to address the philosophy of free press — and, surprisingly, religious freedom — arrives in the form of an unexpected bit of speechifying by the protagonist at gunpoint.  It’s an ending that so many writers attempt to cram into their stories that it’s practically a given tragedy.

Flaws aside, Fly by Night is a massively enjoyable read, even if it is one carried by its writing rather than its story.  Not even the blatant and belated attempts to critique freedom of expression were enough to overcome the laugh-out-loud prose.  When read with an open mind and a poor memory, Fly by Night is a perfectly decent way to spend an afternoon.

Excerpt (pp. 26-27):

 
 

There was another, more pressing reason though. Mosca raised her head and stared up the hillside toward the ragged tree line. The sky was warmed by a gentle redness, suggesting a soft but radiant dawn. The true dawn was still some three hours away.

“Very soon,” Mosca said quietly, “my uncle will wake up. An’ when he does…he’s likely to notice that I’ve burned down his mill.”

 
 

Rating: B

[Amazon]

frances hardinge fly by night book review aydee

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~ by AyDee on July 19, 2008.

One Response to “Book Review: Fly by Night”

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