YA Weekend Audio: A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Audible Studios (October 17, 2017)
Length: 12 hrs and 4 mins
Narrator: Hallie Ricardo
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Frances Hardinge’s A Face like Glass, and afterward I just knew I had to read more of her work. Because of this, I picked up the audiobook of A Skinful of Shadows, and I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. The book turned out to be one of the most wonderfully magical and imaginative Young Adult novels I’ve ever read—in other words, everything I expected from the author.
Set in the mid-17th century in the time of the English Civil War, the story stars our protagonist Makepeace who lives with her mother Margaret in the very Puritan town of Poplar. For as long as she can remember, terrible ghostly figures and other tortured spirits have haunted Makepeace’s dreams, but Margaret has remained stubbornly tightlipped about the topic, even when it is clear she knows why the dead are interested in her daughter. Instead, Margaret forces Makepeace to spend one night every few months locked up by herself in the darkness of the town’s cemetery crypt, telling the girl she must confront her fears in order to build stronger defenses against the ghosts. “One day you will thank me,” Margaret tells her daughter, but as the years pass, Makepeace grows more resentful of the cruel treatment, and the relationship with her mother was never the same again.
Then one day, during a particularly bitter argument, Margaret accidentally lets slip an important piece of information about Makepeace’s father, a subject rarely spoken of in their household. This precipitates a chain of tragic events that leads Makepeace to the discovery of where she came from, as well as the origin behind her nightmares. Never did she imagine that the truth would be so terrible though, as she suddenly realizes the forces of evil her mother had been trying to protect her from. Understanding much too late, Makepeace lets her guard down in a moment of weakness, unwittingly allowing a ghost to invade her mind—except this ghost is different from the ones she has encountered before, being the spirit of a frightened, angry bear.
One thing I’ve learned from reading Hardinge is that you can never predict how her stories will play out. When I first read an early synopsis for this book which describes Makepeace and the ghosts in her head—which includes a motley crew of outcasts, misfits, criminals and one dead bear—I had no idea what I was going to be in for. I certainly did not expect the plot to be so darkly twisted and yet so whimsically magical at the same time. The ideas in A Skinful of Shadows are astonishing in their originality and complexity, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read a YA novel that isn’t clogged t0 the gills with rehashed tropes and paint-by-number characters.
On that note, I also loved the protagonist Makepeace, who exhibits uncommon bravery in the face of the unknown. All her life, she has been surrounded by lies, even from her own mother, who was admittedly just trying to protect her. Still, by withholding the truth, Margaret has only managed to make her daughter more defiant, and like most confused adolescents, Makepeace occasionally lets her temper get the better of her. Still, instead of turning me off, the protagonist’s little acts of defiance only endeared her even more to me, because it made her feel genuine and easily relatable. As a coming-of-age tale, this book really shines in showing the emotional impact of living a life caught in the middle. Makepeace has never felt like she belonged in Poplar, and later finds out that her ability to see ghosts and absorb them into herself is the result of her father’s bloodline. And yet, when she finds herself at Grizehayes, the ancestral home of her father’s family, she is quite horrified to discover what exactly her powers can be used for. Worst of all, instead of finding acceptance with others like her, she is threatened and manipulated, and the only person she ends up trusting is a half-brother named James, who shows her kindness.
And then, of course, there’s the bear. Out of all of Makepeace’s relationships, the one she has with her ghostly beast passenger was by far my favorite—and not just because it’s so strange and wonderful. Having the spirit of a wild animal in your head is as scary as it sounds, but eventually a deep rapport forms between the two of them, with Makepeace trusting the bear’s instincts and “forest wisdom” to guide her. For a companion who isn’t even human, and mainly only communicates with our protagonist through senses and emotions, bear was a surprisingly deep and heartfelt character.
This is only my second novel by Frances Hardinge, but I already feel confident in saying this is not a fluke. She is one of the most creative storytellers I’ve ever read, with a clear talent for crafting strong and evocative narratives whose depth of emotion will stun you. A Skinful of Shadows has firmly placed her on my must-read authors list, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll write next.
Audiobook Comments: Absolutely loved the audiobook. The narrator Hallie Ricardo did a great job and she has an amazing range of voices which really brought all the characters to life. Highly recommended.