A Skinful of Shadows Is Decidedly Unsettling

I bid farewell to 2017 by watching the Australian show Cleverman (all about an indigenous superhero fighting for an oppressed people) and reading Frances Hardinge’s latest book A Skinful of Shadows. It’s about a girl with the ability to carry ghosts inside her, and the aristocratic family that wants to use her as a storage facility for a whole passel of hostile ancestors. Every time Makepeace tries to escape, the Fellmotte family drags her back again — until their involvement in the English Civil War gives her the leverage that might gain her her freedom. She is also possessed by the ghost of an angry bear. Rawr.

Skinful of Shadows

I will freely admit that it has taken me some time (and the evangelism of numerous bloggers) to come around to Frances Hardinge. Like Diana Wynne Jones, Hardinge writes books that start slow and meander for a while before they come to what appears to be the main plot. Like Diana Wynne Jones, Hardinge writes books that are full of weirdness — though Hardinge’s weirdness has a creepy and ashen quality, whereas DWJ’s tended to feel more sunny.

Perhaps most DWJ-ish of all, Hardinge writes books full of protagonists who know themselves imperfectly. What they think they want and who they think they are change as the book goes on, and they come to a fuller understanding of their past and present selves. Makepeace is on a journey to find freedom for herself and her brother, but much of that journey takes place entirely within herself.

(Metaphorically. I mean, she’s also doing cross-country travel a lot of the time. Road trip with ghosts!)

Even more than in past books, Hardinge has packed A Skinful of Shadows with needle-sharp insights, some of which genuinely rocked me back as I was reading.

Children are little priests of their parents, watching their every gesture and expression for signs of their divine will.

and (said of Charles I)

It was as if History were walking at his heels like a vast, invisible hound. It followed him, but he did not command it. Perhaps he would tame it. Or perhaps it would eat him.

One of my favorite things is to witness an author developing her powers over the course of several successive books. If Hardinge’s recent work is anything to go by, she’s on a steep climb with no summit in sight.

Review: The Bloodprint, Ausma Zehanat Khan

Note: I received a review copy of The Bloodprint from the publisher. This has not impacted the content of my review. As Katie always says, it would take more than a single copy of a single book to buy my loyalty.

Bloodprint

Arian is a warrior, linguist, and Companion of Hira, an order of women who draw their power from the Claim, a type of magic that draws its power from sacred scripture. They are battling against the Talisman, a movement led by the One-Eyed Preacher that seeks to eradicate scholarship and knowledge and the written word and to subjugate all the lands under an absolutist patriarchal rule. But Arian has a chance to find the Bloodprint, a physical copy of her faith’s scripture — if she can undertake the dangerous quest to retrieve it.

I’ve been a fan of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s for a while now. She gets me to read mysteries, and I never read mysteries! But her mysteries are grounded in history and grapple deeply with questions of culpability, complicity, and oppression, so they’re catnip to me. The Bloodprint deals with many of the same issues: Arian’s enemy, the Talisman, use a distorted version of her own faith to enslave women, brutally conquer every city in their path, and suppress literacy wherever they go. This is genuinely really hard to read in places, because the Talisman are destroying monuments and texts that Arian’s order values deeply, but that cannot be replaced.

The Bloodprint is very much a road trip story, which is always fun for me. Arian travels with her apprentice, Sinnia; her friend and would-be lover, the Silver Mage Daniyar; and a freed slave named Wafa. They cover a lot of territory, and I was glad that Khan had provided vocabulary and character guides in the back of the book. However, things did tend to get a trifle complicated, in that way secondary world fantasies often do, where the writer has a lot of elements and is trying to introduce all of them in the series’s first book. I got muddled in spots, and it wasn’t always clear which names and concepts I needed to remember for later vs which ones were just there to provide local color on Arian’s journey.

I gave up on secondary world fantasy years ago, when I started to notice how heavily inflected by imperialistic worldviews it all seemed to be. The Bloodprint, which draws on Islamic art, culture, and history, is a refreshing reminder that there’s nothing inevitable about Eurocentric fantasy stories. I’m thrilled to see Ausma Zehanat Khan branching out from mystery into fantasy, and I’ll look forward to reading more in this series.