Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge and Bear Daughter by Judith Berman
Reviewed by Niall Harrison
Fly by Night: Macmillan Children's Books, London, 2005, 304pp, £12.99, h/b, ISBN 1405020784
Bear Daughter: Ace Books, New York, 2005, 422pp, $16.00, p/b, ISBN 0441013228
So here we have two interesting (and good) first novels. They can be (and not unfairly) compared: beyond their debut status, both are tales about girls finding their place in the world, although only one is readily called 'young adult'; both create analogues of worlds-that-weren't, and less familiar ones than are standard; and both are most fairly called fantasies although both have a faint science-fictional sting in their manner. And both begin unpromisingly.
Frances Hardinge's Fly by Night opens with a Note, then a Prologue, and then eighty pages of utterly predictable young-adult character arc in which Mosca Mye escapes from her dank village home on the coat-tails of a thief and wordsmith by the unfortunate name of Eponymous Clent. We are told the history: Mosca and Clent live in the Shattered Realm, a kingdom pretending to be whole but in reality flying to fifty flags and worshipping who knows how many gods (here called Beloved). The requisite encounters with brigands and noble ladies follow, and eventually they end up in the city, Mandelion. Here the Guilds, in particular the Locksmiths and the Stationers the real powers in the realm are engaged in a mutually agreeable stalemate. In this the book echoes The Light Ages, although Hardinge's deftly playful voice is a million miles away from the sonorous tones of Ian R. Macleod, and as in that book (and despite the names) we are in an alternate England: this time, an eighteenth century in which the Restoration never happened.
And Mandelion is where things take off. Those unpromising early pages are told entirely from the perspective of Mosca who, though smart and capable and almost feverishly active, is of a type that is just a little too familiar, at least since Lyra Silvertongue if not for longer. But once in the city, Hardinge seems to recognise that Mosca alone cannot see far enough for us to see the shape of her world, and so, like the realm, the narrative shatters. Not forever, and not enough for us to come to care about any of the other viewpoints we gain the book is still Mosca's story, through and through but we are already hungry for the information they can give us, eager to see a bit more, so we don't mind. Mandelion is consequently a dazzling city on the cusp of change, bubbling with squabbling humanity and a full measure of plots and counterplots. The Stationers, who control the books, want to track down a rogue printing press, which they believe is being operated by their arch-rivals, the Locksmiths; in addition there are radicals with their own agendas, and a less-than-sane Duke trying to reshape the city, and the threat of the remnants of the terrible Birdcatchers, waiting for an opening. It's a mess, but an instructive one: each side differently demonstrates the good and the evil that can be done in the service of impersonal forces that shape our lives, from religion and rationality to commerce and education. It is, in a sense, the story of a world that's growing up, at least as much as it's the story of a girl who's growing up and it's in those less personal moments that it feels most like sf. Those moments when the narrative opens out; when Hardinge dramatises the complexity of progress; when we feel the birth pangs of a modern world.
In Bear Daughter, by contrast, Judith Berman locks us pretty firmly into the viewpoint of her titular heroine, Cloud, a bear who wakes up one day to find that she's a thirteen year-old girl with no idea what being a thirteen year-old girl entails. The network of tribes and families into which she is thrust is complex, and take several chapters to come clear, but it's obvious enough that Cloud's mere existence is causing problems. Driven from her home early on, she wanders the world in search of the truth about her upbringing and about herself. As in Fly by Night, there are the obligatory surrogate parent figures to help Cloud on her way, although they are dispensed with relatively quickly; but there are no cities here, and compared with Hardinge's novel, Berman's has a much more traditional fantasy arc. Cloud's world is out of balance, and she must heal it. Cloud herself is out of balance, and must reconcile her competing identities as a person, as a bear, as a woman.
But at the same time, Bear Daughter holds true to one of the more sfnal qualities of Fly by Night, which is that it too believes in the discoverability of the world. Berman isn't stingy with her fantasy spells and spirits permeate the story but it's all part of normal for Cloud. Built on a loose mix of Native American and Western myths, Cloud's world is emphatically not ours. The manner in which it is presented, however, is so matter of fact that it feels, to us, as much alien as it does fantastic. There's always a sense that the rules by which it operates can be (indeed, should be) found out and understood. Cloud's story is also told in a less flirtatious manner than Mosca's; Hardinge can be charmingly witty, but also irritatingly arch, while Berman is more consistently sober (sometimes, it must be said, to the point of plainness). The result is that while Hardinge's non-magical but off-kilter England often sparkles, it never quite becomes more than a stage for her yarn; and Berman's landscape with bones of myth is, in the end, utterly convincing.
The effect takes time to build up, however. The development of Cloud's world is strongly rooted in her experience of it, in the ways she looks at it, senses it, and thinks about it. Even in the houses of the gods, which are beyond beautiful, Cloud's bearish senses tingle at the coppery scent of blood; elsewhere, for instance riding across a wild sea on the back of an orca, the profusion of scents and sensations can be almost miraculously powerful. As a side-effect, Cloud spends perhaps too long reacting instead of acting. Her stubbornness can be enjoyable, but certainly the first hundred pages could be cut by half, and even after that the plotting can be bumpy and episodic, alternating introspection and travel and explanation a little too mechanically. When Cloud does act, however, with all the capabilities and smarts and strengths she's been given and learned, the results are decisive. And, equally importantly, they are realistic.
The key to both these books is that although they may do different things to their worlds Cloud eventually does restore hers, of course, while Mosca all but kick-starts a civil war neither of them are so naοve as to be about making things better, only about making them right. And both of them, in the end, recognise that such a struggle will never be over. For Cloud, even having acknowledged that there is and always will be pain in the world, it comes as a surprise that her story isn't done when the book is; by contrast, Mosca actively resents the ending she can see lurking ahead of her. What she wants, above all, is more story. In the end, after both these books, that's all we want too.
This article first appeared in Vector 247. Back issues of Vector are available from