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.

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Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)

My love of reading does not distinguish me from the rest of my family. Generations of readers, a few volumes in family for a hundred years, nothing special, but nothing to be ashamed of. High brow, but also crime stories, thrillers… Grandma read French romances in original, Grandpa received boxes full of Chandler, Le Carre and Clancy paperbacks from his brother lucky enough to get to Canada after the War had ended. I’m the book-craziest one, but only by a few degrees.

Fantasy, though, that was something new. Older cousin gave me Hobbit when I was… about ten, I believe, but one of the most beloved books of my early childhood, book that sparked my interest in supernatural fiction, was A Room Full of Leaves, an anthology of short stories by Joan Aiken. Goodreads lists it as a Polish edition of A Small Pinch of Weather, but it’s not precise, Polish version lacks some stories from this collection while including some from A Harp of Fishbones and Other Stories. It’s not strictly fantasy, but mysteries happening to regular people in a world otherwise exactly like ours. So, a tried and true technique older than rigid genre distinctions. I liked the melancholy of most of these stories, the impossible things happening to their young protagonists. I wasn’t able to catch their Englishness, mythical references. I need to revisit this world.

But Aiken’s most famous works were beyond my reach then, and I wasn’t even aware of their existence. The Wolves Chronicles, a long series of novels for younger readers, never translated into Polish. That’s a real problem. Picture books with a few lines written below illustrations, and comics designed for small kids – it doesn’t matter whether they’re in Polish in English, the younglings have to had them read to by someone else and I can translate on the fly. But books you’re supposed to read on your own among your first literary adventures… these, if not available in your native tongue, might miss their perfect moment.

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A comic book for the little ones.

Raising small geeks is a lot of fun. For me – definitely, but my nieces also look quite happy about it. I do not always get it right, and showing Coraline to a three year old… hopefully won’t come out in therapy later in life a source of some major issues 😉 And Brave, after which she was afraid her mother would turn into a bear, was not actually my idea (and Madzia enjoyed both, it’s just that there were some after-effects)

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Anyway, there are better and worse ideas. I keep them supplied with Ghibli movies and Marvel plushies and make sure there are plenty of books, carefully screened for artistic value and gender equality issues.  I read them age-appropriate manga, we play games and tell each other stories. There even is a very special book she can read me!

It’s a chance for me to revisit some of the childhood’s favourites and find some new and exciting books. And in this area I’m not handicapped by living in Poland. Our fantasy is mostly mediocre (with notable exceptions, but still…), our s/f tends to be politically too far to the right for my liking, but kiddie books – we have plenty of the highest quality stuff. There are even some internationally recognised names, take a look.

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Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001)

Tove-Jansson

© Aftonbladet

Yes, another Scandinavian writer of children literature – but what can you do? I was enchanted by the Moomins a long, long time ago, and the enchantment still holds, even when I read them now aloud, to kids. We’re talking about books here, mind you – not that dreadful Japanese-European animated series, nor the gloomy Polish puppet animated show (although I still remember the Groke from this show – with a memory of lingering terrified fascination).

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Actually, Tove Jansson wanted to be a painter; she studied art in Sweden, Finland and France, and she painted intermittently throughout her life, both commissioned and private works. The images of the Moomins’ world were also created by her – apparently the prototype for Moomin was Jansson’s caricature of Immanuel Kant. She drew “the ugliest creature imaginable” on the toilet wall and named it Kant after she lost a discussion about the philosopher with her brother. Fortunately, the final image of the Moomin is much more friendly and blobby, with a big, round nose, a big, round belly, short, fat arms and legs, and a thin, slightly incongruous tail. Tove Jansson’s illustrations form the world of Moomins as much as the text – and they are in perfect harmony with each other.

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Astrid Lindgren (1907 – 2002)

ASTRID LINDGREN
Foto: Jacob Forsell COPYRIGHT PRESSENS BILD

Today’s post will be a short but heartfelt tribute occasioned by the recent birthday anniversary of Astrid Lindgren, falling on 14th November. Astrid Lindgren was – and still is – one of the most popular, prolific, and influential authors of children’s literature, one of the most translated, too, right on the top with the classics: Grimms and Andersen. And most empathetic, and humane, of them all ;).

But why do I write about her on a blog dedicated to fantasy and science fiction? I have my reasons, rest assured :).

Although she didn’t write many fantasy books, Astrid Lindgren was an exceptional fantasy writer, one of the greatest among all authors of books for children, and probably the best the whole Swedish literature has to offer. Period. And don’t tempt me, I could forever go on about Shakespeare, Goethe or Mickiewicz being great fantasy writers as well :D.

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