Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows (2017)

A Skinful of Shadows

Author: Frances Hardinge

Title: A Skinful of Shadows

Format: E-book

Pages: 448

Series: –

“Twenty-seven months is long enough for a place to seep into your bones. Its colours become the palette of your mind, its sounds your private music. Its cliffs or spires overshadow your dreams, its walls funnel your thoughts.

Humans are strange, adaptable animals, and eventually get used to anything, even the impossible or unbearable. […] Terror is tiring, and difficult to keep up indefinitely, so sooner or later it must be replaced by something more practical.

One day you wake up in your prison, and realize that it is the only real place. Escape is a dream, a lip-service prayer that you no longer believe in.”

A Skinful of Shadows is my first Hardinge book, but definitely not the last. Dark and atmospheric, full of loss and anger, horror and hope, this novel transports the reader into the 17th century Britain in the throes of its first Civil War. And while the actual battles, army marches and skirmishes remain on the fringes of the story, the very acute human ugliness always accompanying such conflicts is very much in the center of the novel, making the life of our young protagonist a rather difficult endeavor, fraught with danger, ill-timed happenstance and simple callousness and greed. But fear not, all is not as bleak and dark as it may seem from my introduction; and we have Makepeace Felmotte to thank for this. Makepeace (what an amazing Puritan name!) is a young girl gifted – or cursed – with the ability to see and interact with ghosts. The exact manner of this interaction I will leave to curious readers to discover; suffice to say that there are more things one can do with ghosts than I imagined, and all of them are rather creepy 😉 But despite that strange family trait, which drags her into danger more times that she can count, Makepeace is an inherently optimistic creature; indomitable would be a perfect word to describe her, were she not too humble to accept such aggrandizing epithets. But she is both, and more: humble and indomitable, steadfast, and full of empathy, ability for strategic planning and very un-youthlike patience.

Having read A Skinful of Shadows just prior to Mexican Gothic I couldn’t help but notice certain similarities between the two novels; a plucky, resilient, young heroine, finding within herself more strength and resolve than she ever expected; a horrifying grandfather-figure, lifted straight from the worst nightmares; an acutely felt lack of parents who should serve as guardians, but were sadly, inevitably absent from their daughters’ lives; a feeling of a very human, fragile and delicate connection with another, without much romance. That last trait is particularly refreshing in A Skinful of Shadows, as the relationship described in such a loving detail is one between siblings; another, with a ghost who behaves much like a tantrum-prone three-year-old with superhuman strength, and some more, in which our Makepeace must shed the last vestiges of childhood to become a partner and a guide to lost souls.

A Skinful of Shadows successfully eludes genre or age divisions, filling a niche represented by titles such as Garth Nix’s Sabriel or Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown: suitable both for precocious kids and for adults young-at heart, and with a promise of interesting discussions in between. It is more realistic in its depiction of violence than most books considered modern children literature, and yet thematically aligned with this label, as it’s similarly focused on the themes of empowerment and growth of a very young protagonist. Makepeace must find her way in the world, and literally make peace with herself and the ghosts of her past and present. There are some truly creepy moments in the story, and though none require blood or gore to achieve their desired effect, there is a bit of that as well. There’s violence, even from those who should be above reproach, and abuse, and a bit of despair. The predators can assume many shapes and guises, and the predators in human skin who are hunting Makepeace are suitably dangerous, ruthless and canny to send a shiver down the reader’s spine. And I haven’t even described the ghosts, which add a truly horrific element to the story – if there’s a literary category of horror for children, A Skinful of Shadows would definitely fit in 😉

And yet, there is hope and understanding at the heart of A Skinful of Shadows, and willful, conscious acceptance of the world as it is: not perfect, far from it, but still capable of being transformed into a better place. The story is propelled forward by critical events, but in between them moves steadily, and a bit ploddingly at times, at a reasonable (very Makepeace) pace. Don’t expect non-stop action – a lot happens, but in fits and starts, much like in real life. There are adventures to be had and adversities to be overcome, but the protagonists quickly learn that no victory comes without cost and certain truths about oneself are the most difficult to accept.

Written in a deceptively simple language, Hardinge’s book maintains the flowing cadence of an orally transmitted story, beguiling the readers and keeping them interested even in the slow, meandering parts of the story. There are also moments of surprising depth and poetic soulfulness of this book, glinting here and there like a much-welcome ray of sunlight between the trees.

All in all, I am happy to recommend A Skinful of Shadows as an intriguing, subtly intricate creation in the unique and somewhat neglected category of YAH (young-at-heart) 😊. Lastly, if you can, avoid reading the blurb; it reveals too much of the plot, taking away some of the pleasure of surprise.

Score: 8,5/10

64 thoughts on “Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows (2017)

    1. Yes, the cover is pretty cool – and most Hardinge books have similarly designed covers.

      I’d like to assure you there’s not that much horror, alas – I can’t 😉 Some scenes are quite creepy! But it all ends well, if that’s any consolation 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😊

      Yes, I’ll definitely read more of her books. This one was a delight, and I heard many good things about her other novels, too! Do you have any particular favorite?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I am intrigued by your description of the writing as similar to oral history: when done well, as seems to be the case here, it proves both fascinating and attention-grabbing, which is always a winning element in any book… 😉
    Thank you so much for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another beautifully written review, Ola. I like the sound of the the 17th century English setting and the “deceptively simple language” which can often work so well in a story. What brought this book to your attention?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Wakizashi! 😊

      That was a stroke of luck, mostly – I wanted to read something by Hardinge, having heard only good things about her books, and this one, advertised as a 17th century ghost story and fitted with such a pretty cover, was the first to grab my attention 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m saving Hardinge for when I’m in the mood to binge on a highly rated author who’s new to me; sadly at present I’ve got sooo much else to catch up on, however much I’m tempted. (Yes, I know, your heart bleeds for me… 😁)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think, Chris, that this is exactly the kind of novel you’d love. It goes without saying that I count you in the YAH category, right? 😁

      Like

  4. Ahhh yes!! Always a delight when I see someone I know trying Hardinge’s books. 😀 This one (and her newest release) I still have to read, so I’m happy you enjoyed it! All her books are scarily polished and atmospheric and suited for all ages. My guess is she’s a fae or she’s bargained with one to gain perfect storytelling abilities.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the idea behind a YAH category. I think that fits better with what I prefer reading and enjoying than the YA category where you have to dig long and hard to find something that knows how to be profound with its themes while offering some sort of “coming of age” tale. Really glad to see how much you enjoyed this one and I think I’ll keep an eye out for this author now thanks to you. Great review, Ola! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad I can count you in the YAH crowd! 😀 Come to think of it, maybe we can even do a dance routine, like YMCA or something… 🤣🤣🤣

      I’ll be definitely coming back to her books, so you can expect more reviews in the future – maybe you’ll find something right for you, Lashaan, among her many novels! 😀

      Thank you! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You might enjoy it, actually! The creepy factor is pleasantly high, the story is heartwarming, and the prose is impeccable 😀

      Oh yeah, I’m totally with you on YA – I read YA and I think UGH 🤣 But YAH makes so much more sense! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You did mention similarities to Mexican Gothic and that one sounded pretty good.

        Creepy factor is always a plus 🙂

        I don’t know why but I’ve got the burning desire (after I’ve gotten through some ARCs) to read the Aubrey-Maturin books.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Goodness, I want to read that too! But first, the second Cornwell book and a re-read of Dune… And a few fantasy books in the meantime 🤣

          I think you’d really appreciate Mexican Gothic! It’s decadently sumptuous and eerily creepy, but it’s more of an autumn book, when all the fungi come out to play! 😁😁

          Liked by 1 person

                1. Haven’t read Sharpe! But Saxon Stories are pretty cool if you enjoy an historical fiction in an early Britain setting (and I know you do, from your review of Kristian’s Lancelot! 😀)

                  I know you’re patient, but just wanted to assure you I’m on it! 😄

                  And if you’re interested, you can read mine for a change – though it’s non-fiction, academic and about American culture and the Punisher 😁

                  Like

                    1. I think you might be positively surprised if you gave them a chance, but then we both know I should abstain from predicting others’ tastes, oh gentle friend – I’m certainly not great at it! 🤣🤣🤣

                      Liked by 1 person

                    2. I can see that, especially with the films. There are some pretty good among them, but definitely not all. As for the series, it is great, but quite a punishing one – the violence is fetishised to the extreme, for a reason – and I think it reflects perfectly the character and his peculiar place in American culture.
                      That said, I totally understand if you want nothing to do with either! 😀

                      Liked by 1 person

                    3. I remember liking the series, what I watched of it, to a degree. The actor was phenomenal. But my DC love always turns me off of Marvel … that being said, I haven’t watched any of those films since Batman vs Superman. My geekiness needs to return

                      Liked by 1 person

                    4. Yeah, Bernthal simply is Frank Castle.
                      I’m more of a Marvel girl, the DC movies (with the exception of Nolan’s trilogy) are mostly off-putting to me… The pathos and ridiculousness of DC movies just makes them painful to watch 😉 But I do like comics from both DC and Marvel!!! 😀

                      Liked by 1 person

                    5. Long Halloween is one of my favorites! The Killing Joke a tad less so, but I did enjoy Hush a lot. Jim Lee definitely knows how to draw Batman! 🤣 Arkham Asylum is dreadful, but there are worse – The Brave and the Bold, for example, ugh!

                      Liked by 1 person

                    6. I forgot about Hush! That was so good! Not read The Brave and the Bold. If its worse than Arkham, I’ll attack anyone who tries to give me a copy.

                      I follow Jim on Instagram. His artwork/works in progress he pops up from time to time are stunning

                      Liked by 1 person

                    7. I think the worst comics about Bats I read were those by Tom King. Man, The War of Jokes and Riddles is the absolutely worst comic about Batman I’ve ever read. Arkham’s simply bad. Jokes and Riddles try to be original and controversial and end up breaking continuity in the dumbest way possible. There, my rant 🤣 not that I haven’t vented before in a full review 😂😂😂

                      Lee also has some short YouTube videos where you can watch how he draws various characters – awesome!

                      Liked by 1 person

                    8. I’ll have to have look at those artists. Love comic art! I hate watching them draw, though. They make it look so easy and then I try, fail horrifically and end up destroying my art supplies. I once through my charcoal in the wood burner … my dad handily pointed out that it had already been burnt once before and I was just being cruel 😂

                      Liked by 1 person

                    9. 🤣🤣🤣 poor art supplies! I’ll side with your dad on this one 😁
                      Yes, they are intimidating! And it does look so frustratingly easy when they do it – which never ever is when I do it 🤣 But I find they usually give handy tips, they never intend their audience to copy them, and for me it’s just a pleasure to watch them work 😄

                      Liked by 1 person

                    10. That was my guilty pleasure for a while! 🤣🤣🤣 I just loved listening to his soothing voice while watching how all those images just appeared under his brush.

                      Liked by 1 person

  6. I recently read Deeplight by this author and loved it. On the strength of which I started looking at her previous books and bought the Lie Tree – I will have to add this one to my wishlist too.
    Thanks
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll be reading more by her, that’s for sure! A Skinful… was a delightful read, and I’ve heard a lot of recs about her other books too 😀
      I’ll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on Hardinge!

      Like

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