Book Review: A Skinful Of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

This is the story of a bear-hearted girl . . .

This book. Oh, this book. Quiet simply the most original story I’ve come across. An intriguing mix of supernatural and historical fiction, the writing carries a touch of magical realism that thoroughly enchants. Set during the times of English Civil War, the book follows the story of Fellmottes, a powerful aristocratic family with some rather innovative and strange gifts. Our protagonist, Makepeace, a by-blow of the eldest son, posses the same gift but is unaware of her capabilities because her mother escaped to protect her from her Inheritance.

“We are a strange family, Makepeace,” Sir Thomas said at last. “We have a secret – one that could harm us greatly if it was known…”
“We have nightmares,” whispered Makepeace. “We see ghosts.”
“And they are drawn to us. They know that there is a . . . space inside us. We can host more than ourselves.”
Makepeace thought of the swarms of clawing ghosts, and then of Bear, her own greatest secret. “We’re hollow,” she said flatly. “And dead things can get in.”

Raised in a Puritan community, Makepeace wrestles with night terrors under the strict, unsympathetic supervision of her mother who decides to lock her in a church at night to help her grow strong and fight the wolves.

“Can you fight a wolf with a stick?” Makepeace asked doubtfully.
“A stick gives you a chance.” Her mother gave a slight, sad smile. “A small chance. But it is dangerous to stop running.”
Makepeace thought for a long time.Wolves are faster than people,” she said at last. “Even if she ran and ran, it would still catch her and eat her. She needs a sharp stick.”
Mother nodded slowly. She said nothing more, and did not finish her story. Makepeace’s blood ran cold. Mother was like this sometimes. Conversations became riddles with traps in them, and your answers had consequences.”

However, her mother dies before Makepeace can get a chance to understand her powers, and in a bizarre incident, she ends up becoming possessed by the spirit of a wounded circus bear. Later, taken back into the holds of the Fellmottes, she struggles to understand this possession and left with no option, inadvertently accepts it. And thus, the readers are treated with a delightfully strange friendship between the spirit of a bear and a young, curious girl trying to survive in a strange, hostile world.

Makepeace was a delightful character to read, very human and relatable in spite her strange powers. Her fears and insecurities are understandable, her compassion and later, care for the bear-ghost inside her heartwarming. The bear and James, her step-brother, are the only two people she has to call her own but given the life she’s lead, she trusts the four-legged friend more than her blood.

But there’s more to the plot than simple character development. As the story is told in first person, the reader learns of and understands this mysterious ghost-swallowing magic only when Makepeace does. Moreover, the author does a fabulous of weaving history with family drama and the reality of Fellmottes Inheritance doesn’t let up until the second half. Whereby Makepeace learns that [Spoiler Alert] Fellmottes use their off-spring as vessels for the ghosts of their ancestors, using their knowledge of history for political power. It is also revealed that during this process, old powerful ghosts tend to “rearrange the inner architecture” of the person they are possessing until he/she no loner remains. Afterwards, its a run against time for Makepeace, who gets caught between the battle to live and an actual war. Thus, the mystery element never lets down and continues to the end.

This was my first book by Hardinge and I dare say, it won’t be last. The writing is vivid without being too dreamy, the details of time and era just enough to add to the plot without weighing it down. I’d recommend this book to all who love realistic characters, innovative magic and historical fiction.


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