Hardcover: 435 pages
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books (7 Oct 2005)
Surely there has never before been, nor ever again will be, a book in which a character can cry "Follow that coffee house!".
So this is the second book in a row that I've reviewed here with a 12 year old protagonist. On the other hand, compared to Half Moon Investigations, this is more aimed at people over that age than those under it.
Mosca Mye is our heroine, first met living in the soggy (yet limestony) hamlet of Chough. But, orphaned and armed with a goose (a goose is a stout friend, a fearsome enemy), she runs away, in passing rescuing an Eponymous Clent (that's his name) from the stocks (and possible hanging). And off they go to the troubled city of Mandelion.
Yes, this is a fantasy. It's not got magic, no dragons, no elves, nothing like that. In fact, if not for the political and religious set-up, it could be a historical set in 18th Century London. There are, however, elements that look back to the century before with the turmoil of the Commonwealth, with some totally imaginary additions, such as society being wedded to their household gods (here called The Beloved). This is a grown-up adventure in many ways - there is murder most vile and bodies hung from gibbets. At the same time, there is an infectious humour that only rarely comes from knowing more than Mosca. She is a feisty heroine, one who slowly uncovers more and more of what is really going on in the big city with its many factions. She doesn't always make the right decision. She doesn't always make the moral decision. She misjudges those around her. But in the end, she comes good, though perhaps not enough to be quite forgiven by all of those around her.
And over all this, there is a humanist feel, a love for words and books and a trust in the eventual self-redemption of people as a whole, that is most reminiscent of Terry Pratchett. For a first novel, this is good. Very good. I just hope she can do half as well next time, and that we won't have to wait too long.
(I actually bought this book a while ago, having heard about it from friends, but little more. It then got lost on the bookshelves, and I forgot about it until last Saturday. uitlander had arranged a meal together for a bunch of her friends. It was a Thai meal in the small market town of Brackley, and the majority there came from Oxford, including Miss Hardinge. Having chatted to her over the meal, I felt obliged to go read her novel. I'm now rather wishing I'd read it earlier, though I suppose not having read it meant I didn't gush over the author. Gushing over people a decade younger than you is rather embarrassing.)
Ah yes, the coffee houses. These are floating river barges, very slow (like Dutch barges hauled by kites rather than sails), and this may be the slowest chase scene in fiction.
Too good for children.