Recent Reading: CUCKOO SONG by Frances Hardinge

Okay, yes, CUCKOO SONG is a wonderful book, just as you all said.

The cover is horrible. Horrible.


It’s not that this cover is inaccurate. It’s that the horror vibe is so strong. A cover is supposed to make you want to pick up the book and read the back, flip it open and read the first couple of pages. THIS cover is one I would actively avoid. Can it be that YA readers in the UK like this cover?

As it happens, we can also take a look at the new US cover:


Which is quite different, and I don’t dislike it as much, but it is STILL very much a horror cover. Do the publishers truly, truly believe this cover will draw Hardinge fans? Or do they think that the story IS horror, so that non-Hardinge fans will be inclined to pick it up and then pleased by the story?

All right, anyway, the story:

CUCKOO SONG may not be horror, but it is creepy, offering us a world in which you DO NOT WANT to have any dealings with the fae. During the course of the story, we find out that the fae are having trouble surviving in the modern world, to which my reaction kind of leans toward: WELL, GOOD. Mind you, there are hints that fae may not be uniformly vicious, but the ones we see during the course of the story are, I have to say, uniformly vicious.

The story is not about the trouble you can get into when you deal with the fae, though. Oh, the plot turns on that, sure. But the story is actually all about family. About grief, and the way it can distort a family. About the way your own unhappiness and emotional needs can blind you to the real people around you. About how parents can stunt a child and never notice, about how bitterness and envy rebound to harm everyone involved in the relationship.

Wow, that sounds dark.

Okay, the story is ALSO about finding your own center, about deciding who you’re going to be. It’s about love that holds through everything, and lends you strength when you think you’ve lost, and allows you to redeem yourself and those around you.

The relationship between Triss and her little sister, Pen, is the heart of the book. When the story opens, that relationship has been all but ruined. Triss has been taught to be weak, and Pen has been pushed into constant anger and rebellion. Triss’s role in the family is to be spoiled, pampered, swathed in cotton, and kept safe from absolutely everything, especially independence. Pen’s role is to be blamed for all trouble and tension in the family. As you might imagine, this is not a good situation for either of them.

Watching the two girls forge a new relationship is, as I say, the heart of the book. They each save the other while still terribly at odds, so we see how powerful the underlying bond between them must be, even though they don’t clearly realize it themselves. The relationship between them is not fixed easily or quickly, but by the end, they are true sisters again. (Sort of.) I loved everything about Triss and Pen. I’ve never seen anybody write such an angry nine-year-old. Hardinge does an amazing job with Pen.

The relationships between the girls and their parents is also fraught, and the arc there also moves from relationships that do harm to more positive, supportive relationships. Both the father and the mother are to blame for what’s gone wrong in their family, but Hardinge clearly has more sympathy for the father, who is active in trying to save his daughters, than for the mother, who turns her back on unpleasantness rather than step forward. Still, none of the human characters is presented as truly irredeemable — except for the tailor, who has no family to pull him back from his obsession. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that’s the core of the story: that the bonds within a family are the most important support you have, even if your family is pretty thoroughly screwed up. That even a thoroughly screwed-up family can be sorted out, under the right (desperate) circumstances. Also that if you lose one family, it’s important to form a new one — as with Violet and the girls.

Hardinge captures significant truths about family in sharp, pithy observations:

In the Crescent family home, you had to be careful all the time, because if you did or said the wrong things, it never went away. It just hung there forever, an invisible black mark that everybody knew was there. Pen had found a place [with Violet] where you could say things that were rude and grumpy, and the other person would just be rude and grumpy back, and afterward you could sit eating bananas without an ounce of ill feeling.

Maybe you promised yourself that you would protect your other children from all danger. But you couldn’t do that unless they were in danger. That’s why Triss had to be ill — badly ill — so that you could save her, over and over again.

Hardinge really does remind me very strongly of Diana Wynne Jones (as I know many of you have said). But darker. (That, too.) Despite the darkness, this is not only a beautifully written and beautifully set story, but one which is moving, hopeful, and fundamentally true at its core. The Book Smugglers made me read it by putting it on their Hugo nominations lists. I’m glad they did. It’s definitely award-worthy, small scale but virtually perfect.

And FINE, I will now put more books by Hardinge on my TBR pile. I hear A FACE LIKE GLASS is excellent.

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