This sequel to Frances Hardinge’s rich and rumbustious debut, Fly By Night, reunites us with the rag-tag and engaging heroine, Mosca Mye; her goose of uncertain temper, Saracen; and her employer of sorts, Eponymous Clent. Three months later, and the weeks since they left Mandelion have not been kind to the trio. It is winter, purses are empty and Mosca has used up the last of her patience with her human travelling companion who now languishes in a country debtor’s prison. She attempts to earn a few coins by hawking her uncommon ability to read (‘Oi! Gentlemen! Read the paper for you?’), but her skill lands her in hot water when she is kidnapped by a ruthless gang, whose leader needs some documentation deciphered by a dispensable slave. More dark deeds follow in the town of Toll, whose daytime and night-time populations live in sinister co-existence under a harsh regime which rules that never the twain shall meet.
Hardinge’s singular way with words is, for me, the most enjoyable aspect of this novel. Like its predecessor, it is chock-full of arresting names and phrases conjured by a real wordsmith: eyes ‘as cold and colourless as midwinter slush’; a gaze that ‘sweeps like a soft-haired brush’; a mayor who emits sounds ‘like a man gargling with starlings’. The story itself is perhaps less tightly realised than in Fly By Night, and, for this adult at any rate, occasionally hard to follow. And though Toll is vividly drawn and peopled, I had a sneaking yen to return to Mandelion and all its teaming anarchy. But these are trifling negatives. All in all, it’s thoroughly enjoyable sauce: for the goose, the gander and pretty much anyone else besides.