A Skinful of Shadows: Weird but not weird enough

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge YA fantasy book reviewsA Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge YA fantasy book reviewsA Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Here in the UK, Frances Hardinge is everywhere. Her new book, A Skinful of Shadows (2017), was plastered all over the London underground in the run-up to its publication, thrusting Hardinge into the mainstream.

I heard Hardinge talk about A Skinful of Shadows at a local bookshop and she admitted that she’d felt some pressure when writing. I can’t help wonder if this pressure somehow seeped into the novel as she wrote.

Like all of her books, A Skinful of Shadows is an adventure. There’s a plucky heroine, plenty of ghastly enemies and best of all, murderous ghosts. But the story lacked the originality of her previous work and felt altogether more normal.

It is the English Civil War and the Puritans and Catholics are readying for battle. Young Makepeace lives with her mother in London where she is subjected to some strange tests. Every now and then, and without explanation, Makepeace is forced to spend the night locked in a haunted church where ghosts battle to penetrate her mind.

But there is an explanation. Makepeace has a gift (or perhaps a curse), passed down by her father’s aristocratic family, the Felmottes — she can host ghosts in her body. It’s a gift she needs to be able to control because when a person dies their ghost normally flings itself at anyone who can house it.

When misfortune strikes and Makepeace is forced to go and live with the Felmottes she starts to realise that far from fighting against this gift, the Felmottes are using it for a dastardly purpose. Small and insignificant, Makepeace is at risk of being sucked into the Felmotte’s scheme but she has a secret that gives her strength — Makepeace houses the ghost of a bear in her body.

The bear is the best bit about A Skinful of Shadows. It’s classic Hardinge and there’s something undeniably compelling about a young girl housing a bear in her brain and all the complications that causes. Though Makepeace and the bear forge a deep bond, he’s an unruly companion, prone to bouts of rage. As time moves on the two become inextricably linked so that that the bear’s outbursts reflect part of Makepeace’s own nature.

Readers who have grown used to Hardinge’s heroines will like Makepeace who is dynamic, brave and clever, although of all the girls Hardinge has dreamt up Makepeace is the least distinctive. She lacks the tortured soul of Triss in Cuckoo Song, or the endearing erraticness of Neverfell in A Face Like Glass. But, like them she is an underdog, oppressed by the society she lives in.

Power is an important theme in A Skinful of Shadows and is explored most effectively through Makepeace’s half-brother, James, her only ally at the Felmotte mansion. Though James despises the Felmottes and what they do he is also attracted to the power they wield and is tempted by the status they can provide. Hardinge perfectly captures the creepy, distorting nature of this temptation. She also offers a critique of inheritance and the way the aristocracy passes down wealth and superiority from generation to generation, cementing their power and position.

I’m not sure if a young person with no knowledge of the English Civil War would necessarily understand the wider context of A Skinful of Shadows (I’ll have to find a child and ask them). This doesn’t affect the clarity of the story but a bit more detail about the Puritans and the Catholics could have brought this compelling period of history to life. For example, we are told that lots of people in Makepeace’s community have strange names like hers but not why this is so. Given some of the bizarre things that happened during the war I was surprised that Hardinge didn’t jump on the chance to highlight the weirdness.

The main issue with A Skinful of Shadows is that the pace drops in a way that doesn’t happen in her other novels. I also missed that distinctive Hardinge strangeness — that moment in her other books that made me sit up and think: this is something a bit different. While Hardinge’s previous work piles curiosity on top of curiosity, this is a more linear story with a reasonably clear destination. The ghosts and Makepeace’s interaction with them are wonderful, the story is undoubtedly fun, but the setting and the pace means it loses a certain edge.

Published October 17, 2017. A Skinful of Shadows is a dark YA historical fantasy set in the early part of the English Civil War. Makepeace is an illegitimate daughter of the aristocratic Fellmotte family, and as such, she shares their unique hereditary gift: the capacity to be possessed by ghosts. Reluctant to accept her appointed destiny as vessel for a coterie of her ancestors, she escapes. As she flees the pursuing Fellmottes across war-torn England, she accumulates a motley crew of her own allies, including outcasts, misfits, criminals, and one extremely angry dead bear. From Costa Book of the Year winner Frances Hardinge comes a new dark historical fantasy that’s sure to satisfy her leagues of fans who are eager for more.

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KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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  1. Hrm, what a shame. As you express, I’ve come to expect a certain level of weird from Hardinge’s books — especially with the notion of a bear’s spirit inhabiting a girl’s mind.

  2. I haven’t read her, so maybe it would be okay to start here… because I’m really liking that bear.

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