Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is exactly the sort of book I would have loved as a child. It is a fantasy novel, a gothic story of ghosts and possession and strange, creepy families in strange, creepy houses, but it is grounded very solidly in the English Civil War, and feels more like a really good historical novel with supernatural elements.
It’s going to be difficult to talk about what makes this book interesting and exciting without spoiling at least some of the book – there is a fair bit of creepy foreboding in the first third or so of the story before we learn what is really going on with the elders of the family. For me, the book really takes off once this secret is confirmed and Makepeace starts trying to fend for herself against it. I’ll cut this where the spoilers start.
Makepeace has a gift, or perhaps a curse – she is able to harbour the spirits of the dead, and the spirits can sense this, and they want in. Her mother tries to teach her to defend herself, and also to protect her from her father’s powerful family, but after her mother dies, she is on her own, and her father’s family is quick to claim her. It’s pretty clear that they are a deeply creepy group of people, but her half brother, James who is also illegitimate, befriends her, and they plan to escape together.
Her gift is a family trait, and one which has in fact shaped the family, and there is a pretty sinister reason why the elder family members make a point of collecting any illegitimate offspring who carry the trait of being able to house ghosts. And the first half of this book is a straight gothic, really. What is going on in the creepy house? Who are Makepeace’s relatives, really? Can any of them be trusted? Did you really think the answer to that last question was going to be yes? Of course you didn’t.
But alongside this, England is getting worked up towards the Civil War. Makepeace’s mother’s family were Puritans, but her father’s family are Catholics and for the King. And once the war gets going, this creates all sorts of opportunities for Makepeace and her half brother, and the story starts moving out into the world, where it is still creepy and tense, but to my mind, much more fun – perhaps because Makepeace is now doing things rather than reacting.
The setting is just fantastic, incidentally. I love the English Civil War era, and the space it makes for spies and politics, and I love how Hardinge writes it here, with both sides harbouring men and women of courage and integrity, and both sides harbouring some pretty terrible people as well, until one has sympathy with Makepeace’s feeling that she cares neither for King nor Parliament, just for the individuals who are having to live with this war. She wants to preserve people, not ideals.
And speaking of preserving people… here be spoilers!
My favourite thing about this book is when Makepeace, half deliberately, half by accident, begins recruiting her own set of ghostly allies. I love the shifting alliances inside their head, and the way they use each other and fight each other and band together or betray each other in turn – family is a strong theme in this book, and in many ways, Makepeace creates a family of her own from her ghosts.
Of course, you need to bear in mind that not all families are functional…
This is a very, very good novel – the grounding in history makes it feel substantial in a way not all fantasies manage, and there is both light and dark to be found. I like the spirits, and I like Makepeace’s character – thinking about it, she is very firmly herself from start to end, which might be why she is able to fight so well in her situation.
This is going to the top of my ballot in the YA section. Highly recommended.