Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cuckoo Song

May I call this lusciously creepy without sounding mad?  "Extraordinary" just doesn't seem to cut it.

My first foray with Hardinge's work was Fly by Night, and I was pretty young when I read it.  When I was younger, I thought that since I *got* Pride and Prejudice I could reader whatever I wanted and *get* it.  Now that I am a grown-up (or trying to be, at least), that's not true at all.  Anyway, I didn't particularly like Fly by Night because I thought it was trying too hard to be Dickensian and I was used to fantasy books tying everything up in a neat bow.  Now I prefer unreliable narrators, unhappy endings, and unlikable characters.  So I might retry Fly by Night sometime.  I'll probably be eighty before I ever whittle down my to-read list, but hey.  It's a goal.

I'm finding it difficult to review Cuckoo Song because it's about so many things, but Hardinge manages to arrange them beautifully and give you a perfect package of twisted family life, magic, grief, and love.

Triss wakes up, disoriented.  Her parents, who dote on her to the point of smothering her, inform her that she fell in the grimmer (which I assume is some sort of water-retention area.  I used the OED (my favorite!!!) and found a note that said "grimmer" is a spurious usage of "gimmer," which is a female lamb under the age of one.  I don't think that's correct.  Any help here would be appreciated!) and her already delicate constitution has been severely affected by her dunking and near-drowning.  It seems that Miss Triss is subject to many ailments, all of which require her to be coddled and posseted and kept in her room.  Her younger sister, Pen (short for Penny), is exactly the opposite.  She acts out in the most spectacular ways--it really is impressive to read about her massive tantrums.  The solution? Her parents lock her in her room.  There's a lot of locking-in-rooms going on here, and a lot of tincture taking by mummy dearest.  Ooo, I feel a dysfunctional family coming on!

Hoo boy, are they ever!  Daddy dearest is an engineer.  Mummy, well, she's rather a terror and likes firing maids.  Triss is an invalid and Pen a devil.  There's also an empty space in the family: their older brother, Sebastian, who died in the Great War several years ago but whose room is still a sanctuary and whose name is still forbidden to be uttered.

Triss starts to suspect that Pen may be right in saying that there's something not right going on--for one thing, she's ravenously hungry.  She even starts eating ... things.  Non-food things.  Oh, and did I mention that the dolls are talking to her?  That is some freaky stuff right there.  China dolls are right up there with circuses for me in "things that provoke a visceral fear."  Plus, she keeps finding leaves in her hair and sleepwalking.

As you may have guessed from the title (stop here if you don't want minor spoilers...)
Triss isn't really Triss.  She's not-Triss, a sort of changeling made out of straw and cloth and animated to live for precisely seven days.  When not-Triss discovers that Pen made a deal with a mysterious being named the Architect, she decides to track down her creator, the shrike.

Major hitch in her plans: her parents have enlisted the services of a tailor (who also happens to be a changeling-hunter (long story)) to "fix" Triss.  Alas, "fixing" involves tossing not-Triss into a fire.  Pen rescues her, and from there on out it's a pell-mell race to find the shrike, corner the Architect, rescue the real Triss, and save not-Triss' life.  All with the help of Sebastian's fiancée, Violet, who has some serious problems of her own.

The plot here is well done, but the real star is the writing.  Hardinge nails the fine line between creepy and dreamy.  It's fantasy horror at its very best.  The family dynamics are also magnificently done.  It's dysfunction to the nth power, and yet, I can imagine that happening in families all over the world after the cataclysm of the Great War.  They'd never experienced anything like it.  At the beginning, I really loathed Pen--I did.  I have a younger sibling and although I was jealous of him (the worst time being when he got a Barney stuffed animal and I didn't get anything, so I locked myself in the bathroom and proceeded to write a long letter detailing my misery and the unfairness of it all), I never, you know, tried to have him knocked off.  Yikes.  But the relationship between Triss / Pen / not-Triss is more complicated than it first appears, and by the end, I guarantee you'll have a change of heart.

This is not a book to be summarized, but one simply to be savored.  Do so at your earliest opportunity.

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