17 December 2006

Values in Fly By Night

I've mentioned Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night twice on this blog, both times in the sincere belief that it was a fantasy. But it's not. Sure, the actions of Saracen the goose are a little convenient at times, but no laws of physics are harmed in the telling of this story. That must be why it's nominated for a middle-grade fiction Cybil but not in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category.

Rather, Fly By Night is an alternate-reality story. In this version of England in the late 1600s or early 1700s, the society is still in shock from the short, bloody rule of fundamentalist Puritans. While nominally still one country, it's actually a collection of feuding mini-states, each loyal to its own military leader. They are loosely united by the rules of well-meaning but often ineffectual guilds. (Think Afghanistan, with those guilds in place of NATO.)

The realities of daily life are equally alternate. For example, Restoration and Georgian London had coffeehouses tied to shipping through the early insurance business. But Hardinge's city has coffeehouses that actually ply up and down the river to find customers. And of course giving those floating cafés sails for propulsion would be too normal; no, the boats in this book are drawn by kites.

To go with such strikingly fresh images, Fly By Night is gorgeously written, with startling metaphors and delight in vocabulary that extends to characters' names (especially the middle-aged men: Eponymous Clent, Mabwick Toke, Linden Kohlrabi).

The plot is complex, but weak enough that it rests on accepting that ***SPOILER*** after a girl has climbed into a printing press, lain there for a while, and slithered back out, her apron and arms will be imprinted with perfectly legible words. Printers' apprentices had to spend years learning not to smudge ink, but our heroine Mosca Mye seems to come by the secret naturally.

For an Anglophile American, it's fun to pick out the bits of English history that fed into this vision: medieval guilds, the icon-bashing changeover of church leadership under Henry VIII, the bearpits of Jacobean London, Cromwell's protectorate, a writer in rural exile with his daughter like John Milton, the wigs and watermen of Augustan London, the tobies of the Georgian heath.

Yet despite this tale taking place in what the Guardian called "a demented England that never was," Fly By Night reflects the nearly universal, almost undebatable values of today's fiction for young people. And what are those, folks? As I spelled them out in this iteration of this pet theory, those values are:

  • Maintain a sense of hope in tough situations.
  • Be yourself instead of trying to fit into what your family or your society wants you to be.
  • Literacy is important.
  • Girls can do anything boys can do.
  • Tolerance is good.
With a female protagonist in a traditionalist society, points two and four go together. From the start, Mosca insists on wearing breeches under her skirt, and eventually ***SPOILER*** rejects a safe future as teacher and wife. In between, all the male guild leaders and conspirators underestimate her because she's a girl (with one possible exception--the idealistic but naive radical, naturally). And in the final chapter she spells out the value of tolerance for anyone who's missed it.

HarperCollins US, faced with a big challenge in appealing to American children (not all of us were watching Masterpiece Theater at age ten), chose to play up the third point above: the value of free reading. As shown here, the US cover design for Fly By Night invites young readers to:
Imagine a World in which All Books Have Been
(The UK edition, shown above, took flight on goose wings instead.)

In fact, not all books have been BANNED! in this Fly By Night world, only those not approved by the Company of Stationers, out of fear that they might open religious or political divisions. Yes, the Stationers have gone too far and also take steps to maintain their own sway. But given their nation's history of massacres and civil war, it's understandable for these people to feel skittish about books. Faith in the free press is a modern value.

Fly By Night also takes place in a society in which monotheism, and thus religious freedom, has been BANNED. Travel on boats not controlled by the watermen's guild has been BANNED. Independent schools have been BANNED. Females going out without bonnets are, if not BANNED, at least looked askance upon (that one's based on actual history). But you can't grab so many American readers by asking them to imagine those threats. To make kids check out a book, raise the possibility that they shouldn't be allowed to read it.


fusenumber8 said...

Oh good. I hoped that you'd like it. I think I would have curled into a small miserable ball if you hadn't. Thank you too for saying what I have for months now. It's really not a fantasy in the technical sense of the term.

tem2 said...

Wait, that was supposed to be England?!!

Not a fantasy due to a lack of fantastical elements, but also not an alternate history due to a lack of real-world geography, culture, personage, or events before a point of divergence. I've been stumped on what to call this book but "alternate-reality" is probably as good a description as any.

J. L. Bell said...

Re: Wait, that was supposed to be England?!!

Well, I suppose within that alternate reality it might be called Turmeric or Gobbet or Derris instead.

J. L. Bell said...

I must admit to feeling disappointment when Fly By Night ended.

Partly that was because many of the conflicts resolved in a most unexciting way, without Mosca as a player or witness, so we hear about them in a rush. And then that was followed with a final chapter of unsurprising expression of familiar values and set-up for a sequel.

But part of my disappointment was also due to how I was having a fun time in that world and reading about that world. Which is, I suppose, what sequels are for.

Tanya said...

Your blog is excellent! I am a huge Frances Hardinge fan and am so thrilled to find others in America who have read and enjoyed her work! "Fly By Night," especially as an audio, is amazing. Hardinge's next book, "Well Wtiched," is completely different and equally incredible. She has a new one, "Gullstruck Island," but it's only out in the UK at this point.

I just started a blog reviewing YA books and the occasional picture book and am thrilled to find your site. I have reviewed both of Hardinge's book and can't wait for the next. Guess I'll have to pay to have amazon.uk ship it to me...

Regards - Tanya @ www.books4yourkids.com