Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review: A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
Published: Amulet Books / Macmillan Children’s Books (2017)
Awards Nominated: Locus YA, Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book, Carnegie Medal

The Book:

Sometimes, when a person dies, their spirit goes looking for somewhere to hide. Some people have space within them, perfect for hiding. Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts which try to possess her in the night, desperate for refuge, but one day a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard. 

And now there's a spirit inside her. The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, and it may be her only defense when she is sent to live with her father's rich and powerful ancestors. There is talk of civil war, and they need people like her to protect their dark and terrible family secret.”

I don’t tend to review a lot of YA on this site, but that’s mostly because I know I’m not really the target audience.  Nevertheless, I decided to try reading some of the Lodestar nominees of 2018, and this book was provided to me through NetGalley.  I did read it in time for the voting, but my reviews have just gotten terribly delayed. This novel was my favorite of the bunch, though Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher was also really good. This is the first book I’ve read by Frances Hardinge.    

My Thoughts:

I would call A Skinful of Shadows a mix between horror and fantasy.  The horror is obvious; the premise of the book involves spirits invading the bodies of the living.  However, Makepeace does not view her ability to host the spirits of others within her own body as only a thing of terror.  She is frightened by the prospect of her own mind being crushed by the spirits of the dead, but she is also willing to share the space inside herself with those for whom she finds compassion.  I liked that her ability was not portrayed as inherently beneficial or harmful, but as a potentially useful, yet dangerous tool. In this way, the supernatural elements feel more like the magic system of a dark fantasy, and this shifts the whole story closer to my interests.

The heart of the story is the coming-of-age of the heroine, who bears the unusual puritan name of Makepeace. She is a young adolescent girl that does not have the support or guidance of anyone with her best interests at heart. There is a lot about the world around her that she does not understand, and every day she must struggle to find a place within it that doesn’t result in her death, or worse. Even so, she meets the difficulties she encounters with determination, intelligence, resourcefulness, and a solid sense of self-worth.  I thought she was an excellent heroine, and there is a lot in her character that younger readers could admire.

The book starts just before the English civil war (~1640s, I think), which is not a period of English history with which I’m particularly well-versed.  I didn’t feel like my lack of familiarity with the history was a barrier to understanding the story, especially since this seems to be a primarily fictional take on the period. It seems to have been a confusing and chaotic time, and I liked that the narrative primarily focused on the common people caught in the chaos rather than the politics of aristocrats.  Makepeace has no reason to favor one side of the civil war over the other, though she does get caught up in events from time to time. There is also a strong sense of place and atmosphere, so younger readers who are interested in historical fantasy would likely find a lot here to enjoy.  

My Rating: 4/5

Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is an entertaining YA horror/fantasy set in mid-1600s England. The story involves an aristocratic family who has the hereditary ability to harbor spirits of the dead within their bodies, and I appreciated that it considers both the harm and good that can come from such an ability. I liked the strong sense of the place and time, and I liked the mental strength and determination of the heroine, Makepeace.  As an adult, my perspective may not be that of the target audience, but I can say that I enjoyed this novel very much.

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