RogerBW's Blog

The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge 23 July 2017

2015 fantasy. In Victorian England, Faith Sunderly has gone with her family to the Isle of Vane as her father the famous naturalist supervises the excavation of fossils, though it gradually becomes apparent that he is under some sort of cloud. Still, there is science to be done… by the men.

This is another Hardinge set in a world only slightly askew from our own, and like Cuckoo Song it suffers from a slow and over-mundane start (just compare it with the cheese-caves that open A Face Like Glass). There's an obvious feminist message here, but there are multiple layers to it, and the attitude shown by Faith to her mother in particular undergoes several crucial changes. This book shows, more than many, the importance of being able to seem to fit into a place in society even if that fit isn't a good one; the alternative is worse.

Back in the trophy room the gentlemen would be taking the leash off their conversation. Likewise, here in the drawing room, each lady quietly relaxed and became more real, expanding into the space left by the men. Without visibly changing, they unfolded, like flowers, or knives.

But there's magic here too, and specifically the tree: it needs to be fed on lies, lies that must be passed around and spread, and when this is done it will bear a fruit that, when eaten, provides a hidden truth. Or is that legend just another lie?

Or you could just lose yourself in the glorious prose. Hardinge keeps getting better at this.

They passed pitted headlands and deep coves where solitary buildings skulked along the shoreline. Then the ferry slowed, turning laboriously with a churn of water to enter a deeper bay with a harbour ringed about by a high wall, and beyond that ascending rows of blank-eyed houses, slate roofs slicked with rain. Dozens of little fishing boats tilted and shrugged, their cat's cradles of ropes ghostly in the mist. The gulls became deafening, all squabbling with the same broken note. There was motion on the ferry, a communal letting out of breath and readying of luggage.

There's the tension of theories of evolution not only between learned men but among the other islanders; there are at least two unexpected friendships and several unexpected enmities; there are dream-visions; there is death, perhaps suicide, perhaps not, and the mystery that comes of trying to solve it.

At least in the flickering candlelight he no longer looked helpless, the way he had down on the blanket in the library. His features might have been carved from marble, unchanging and incorruptible. Here he was his own altar.

All right, it's a step back from the quality of Cuckoo Song because there are people in this book who are simply Bad; they have reasons for it, but it's an unwelcome weakness even so. I think that using the real world lets Hardinge be grimmer than she feels she can get away with in a separate creation. Nonetheless, still an excellent book.

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