RogerBW's Blog

Unraveller, Frances Hardinge 05 November 2022

2022 fantasy. In the marsh-woods of Raddith, Things are living. And some of them give people the ability to curse: if you fester a hatred for long enough, you can turn your enemy into bees, or steal their shadow, or just set them on fire…

And one of the many strands that go to make up this book is: what sort of society do you get, when that's a thing that can happen? How do you make sure you have a society at all? Is cursing a way for the victim to get revenge on their oppressor, or will it be co-opted by the powerful to make themselves more so? What does it do to the curser to encourage that much hate?

Into this unstable situation are thrown Kellen, a boy with an ability to cure curses, and Nettle, a curse victim whom he cured. They're trying, in a small way, to offer the use of this ability to other people, but it all gets complicated.

Kellen didn’t quite understand why calico was evil, but apparently the weavers in other countries didn’t have the sense to riot and stop people using idiot looms. Now those countries had lots of cheap cloth. They were selling it to Raddith so that the Raddith weavers would all starve, or something like that.

Kellen and Nettle have good reason to be suspicious of people, especially people who say they want to help them. When a powerful official with a part-demonic henchman wants to use their talents, well, who's to say she's on the side of good? Or, indeed, that her enemies are?

All the same, there was a Chancery faith – a godless one, but no less devout for that. It was a hard-headed, practical belief that people needed food on the table, and ideally food that wouldn’t suddenly turn to ashes or start singing. It was a merchant faith, a belief in the importance of negotiation, fairness, honesty and practical good sense.

And the strands are woven together. This is absolutely not a story about good people versus bad people, though both sorts of people are here. Then there's one working for the other, one genuinely believing that they're the other, people on the same side disagreeing completely as to what should be done…

For some reason, highlanders found it hard to understand that there were many different kinds of eerie bobbing lights that you might encounter in the marsh-woods. The prankets were mostly harmless, the Jinny-of-the-lanterns would try to lure you to your death and the moonticks wanted to settle in your ear so that they could drink the colour from your dreams.

This is not a book to read quickly. This is a book to dwell on, and think about, as you go. It's a very dense 130,000 words, with vitally important things happening in a few sentences, and if you were still wallowing in lush descriptions of a goblin market you might miss them. These supernatural creatures are genuinely terrifying, the way they always were before the Victorians made fairies cute, and no less so for not coming from our own tradition of legend.

‘She’s got terrible taste in men,’ Kellen said aloud.

‘It might not be her fault,’ said Nettle. ‘Maybe terrible men just have taste in her.’

This is a story with real people in it, in a setting that feels real too, with gorgeous weirdness that still fits together in a way that too little weird fantasy manages. Every Hardinge is my favourite of hers when I've just read it; I think this one has also left a lasting impression.

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