A great deal of fun that brilliantly integrates its 17th Century setting with the travails of a brave young woman and her battle against an ancient and evil family of magic-users.

opening remarks

My confession is that I was late in catching the Hardinge bus.  After years of hearing what a brilliant writer she was, it wasn’t until 2014 when I read her new novel at the time Cuckoo Song.  After enjoying that book I promised myself that I would never miss another of her novels.  And so, of course, I promptly forgot to read her 2015 book The Lie Tree.  In a bid not to let another Frances Hardinge novel pass through to the keeper, I’ve pushed everything else aside and cracked upon the virtual covers of A Skinful of Shadows.

knee-jerk observations


I know I’m providing bugger all context here but this is a magnificently chilling description of something dead and awful speaking… or trying to:

Hardinge is such a wonderful story-teller.  It takes only a handful of pages for her to suck you into the narrative.  In this case, she’s dealing with the 17th Century, during the reign of King Charles the First and, as a backdrop, the simmering Catholic / Protestant hostilities present at the time.  I really appreciate that for Hardinge the 17th Century isn’t just an ‘interesting’ backdrop for a fantasy novel but an actual place where internecine and sectarian struggle was a daily occurrence and if you had a falling out with Parliament you didn’t get sent to the back bench but rather had your head stuck on a pole.

The main thread, though, deals with Makepeace, a young girl who is locked up in the cemetery by her mother when the weather is warm so she can practice the skill of resisting the dead penetrating her mind and soul.

As you do.

Once her mother is crushed underfoot during a sectarian riot Makepeace finds herself living with her father’s wealthy and influential family.  Under their roof Makepeace discovers that she has the ghost of a Bear in her head – isn’t Makepeace and the Bear a great title for a 70s cop show? – and that the paternal side of her family are practitioners in magic and witchcraft.

Hardinge has such a way with words. Even without context this hits the right note of dread and darkness:

And there’s some great snark as well:

The fantastical concept of the novel is a little crusty, a little well-worn.  Specifically, Makepeace is the progeny of a high-born family, the Fellmotte’s who have this capacity to store ghosts in their noggins.  Long ago the Fellmotte elders realised they didn’t need to die, they could simply use the bodies of their heirs and spares as accommodation.  If the heir or spare survived the process of transitioning the essence from one host to the other he, or she, (generally a he) would join with his ancestors when the next transfer occurred.  Therefore, the Fellmottes Makepeace meets are really the amalgamation of previous Fellmottes controlling the host body and they view Makepeace as a receptacle, a house on legs.

Like I said, it’s not a new idea, Michael Marshall Smith borrowed a similar concept for his 2007 novel The Intruders, and that’s just the first book that immediately comes to mind.  Of course, it’s how you use a familiar plot hook that makes all the difference and that’s certainly the case with A Skinful of Shadows.  There’s the setting, that as I’ve noted is more than just background, there’s the character work – Makepeace is a proactive, smart, brave young woman – and there’s also the blending of other genres, a bit of spy-craft, a bit of family drama, a bit of fugitive on the run.  The meshing of these elements keeps things fresh.

At one point, for plot related reasons, Makepeace is compelled to house the ghost of a Doctor Quick.  His arrival in her head and the arguments they have increases the novel’s entertainment value by about thirty-notches.

the gist of it

That was a great deal of fun: brave Makepeace and the family of ghosts that reside in her head fighting the Fellmottes as the rest of the country plunges into Civil War.  It’s exciting and dangerous and funny (Doctor Quill is a laugh) and, most of all, so very smart.  But then it’s a book written by Frances Hardinge and at this point in her career, winning awards for her last two novels, you’d expect no less.

A Skinful of Shadows is about trust and friendship while also casting the English Civil War as a social revolution, ordinary people standing tall against Kings and aristocracy.  For Makepeace it’s the dawning of a new world:

And while the first and second English Civil War didn’t lead to the utopia of Makepeace’s dreams it was the first step to a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy where the little person was given a greater say… eventually… only to ruin it with Brexit.

A Skinful of Shadows is an entertaining, immersive, joy of a novel written by an extraordinary story-teller.  I promise not to miss her next book.