I keep hearing Frances Hardinge’s name mentioned as a YA fantasy writer whose work is of interest to adult readers; here’s my chance to judge for myself. Twilight Robbery is the standalone sequel to Hardinge’s debut, Fly By Night; it’s the continued adventures of an orphan girl named Mosca Mye, and her companions, Eponymous Clent (a thief and con artist) and Saracen (a goose whose default temperament is that of the Unseen University Librarian when the latter gets called a monkey). Travelling to the walled town of Toll, the three get caught up in a plot to abduct the mayor’s daughter. But Toll is no ordinary town: inhabitants and citizens alike are classified into ‘day’ and ‘night’ according to the folk deity under whose auspices they were born, and are only allowed to ‘exist’ during the relevant period (the town is even built so that its layout can change from day to night) – and, as story-luck would have it, Mosca and Clent fall on opposite sides of that divide.
For a start, Twilight Robbery is great fun to read: an intriguing plot with considerable momentum (even the many references to past events only make me want to read Fly By Night, rather than leaving me frustrated that I haven’t); and some lovely, rhythmic writing – like this, when Mosca is escaping from capture:
It takes time to find a lantern in the dark, long enough for two quick legs to sprint away into the heaving labyrinth of gorse. It takes time too for sleep-fumbled hands to strike tinder and nursemaid the trembling flame to the wick, long enough for small, cunning hands to snap off a fern-fan the right size to shield a black-haired head from sight. (p. 35)
Mosca Mye is a very appealing character. She’s exceptional in many ways – able to read in a world where many people of her social standing are not; just about the only person in Toll who isn’t charmed by the mayor’s daughter; able to move faster and squeeze into smaller spaces than lumbering adults – and thus a character whom change will follow; this, together with Mosca’s wit and the friction between her and Clent, make her a very engaging figure to read about.
Alongside all its brio, however, there’s a serious heart to Twilight Robbery; Hardinge does not shy away from the harshnesses of life, as shown when Mosca comes across a dead body in a wine cellar:
Mosca stood on the threshold and quivered. She hoped the cask had split. She hoped the darkened pool around the cask was wine. It smelt like wine. She wondered if she would ever be able to bear the smell of wine again. (p. 264)
Perhaps the central issue embodied in Twilight Robbery is that of social segregation; and, of course, Hardinge’s fantasy structure enables her to literalise that concept to an extraordinary degree. My main quibble with the novel has to do with how she handles this. Towards the end, Mosca is frustrated that she can’t do more to help; Clent replies that she has much to learn:
‘Bold actions have consequences, child…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.’ (pp. 454-5)
I find myself somewhat in sympathy with Clent’s view, here – not that people are never good, but that big issues tend not to have simple solutions. But the world of Twilight Robbery is a larger-than-life one where problems are responsive to bold actions, and a young girl like Mosca Mye can be an agent of change. I suppose this is partly in the nature of children’s literature; but the ending does feel like a disappointing flinch from a book which has not been afraid to be ‘grown up’ when it needed to be.
On balance, though, Twilight Robbery is a book I’m glad to have read, and Frances Hardinge an author I will be reading again in times to come.