Sometimes commissions arrive as “N possible choices, chose one.” Even when a suggested title doesn’t make the first cut, I often leave it on my reading list as a possibility for an unsponsored review. I’m particularly likely to do this if it is a title I’ve not read but that looks interesting or is critically acclaimed. Novels like Frances Hardinge’s (Carnegie Medal short-listed) Cuckoo Song are the rewards I get for expanding my reading list.
The Great War came and went, taking Triss Crescent’s brother Sebastian with it. The post-war era brought material prosperity to the Crescent family, but nothing that could compensate for their long-mourned loss. Money could not bring Sebastian back; nothing could bring Sebastian back. No method known to mortal man, at least.
As the book opens, the Crescents have narrowly avoided another calamity. Triss turns up sick, weak, and drenched, apparently a near-victim of drowning in the nearby Grimmer millpond. Struggling to recover from the trauma, an amnesiac Triss tries to piece together what really happened down by the Grimmer, impeded by her younger sister Pen. Pen has always resented her older sister; now she treats Triss as though she were a stranger who had invaded the Crescent home.
The more Triss learns, the more discomforting the picture becomes. As her own behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, driven by needs and desires she does not understand, Triss is forced to accept an unpleasant truth: there are monsters in the world and someone in the Crescent family has made a terrible bargain with them.
And one of the monsters is the girl who calls herself Triss.
This novel is marketed to teens and I can see why. While there are few teenagers who wake to find that they are a thing made of sticks and leaves, a thing prey to all consuming hunger, it is fairly common to discover that one doesn’t fit into any nice conventional boxes or that one is suddenly subject to unfamiliar urges. Unnerving self-discovery probably resonates with a lot of kids.
The antagonists in this book — the seemingly kindly tailor Mr. Grace, the inhuman Shrike, and the Architect — are surprisingly sympathetic. That kind of nuance is rare in a book aimed at younger people. Hardinge consistently rejects simple binaries. Mr. Grace, for example, is driven by grief, an emotion with which the Crescents are all too familiar. Several of the Crescents are less appealing than the supposed antagonists; they are untrustworthy and self-centered. Their saving grace is that they are capable of regret.
The “Besiders,” who appear to be a variation on the Fair Folk, initially appear as treacherous as any fairy from myth. It gradually becomes clear that while some Besiders are legitimately predatory, much of the conflict is driven by cognitive differences between human and Besider. The Shrike and the Architect, the leaders of the local community of Besiders, always deliver exactly the boons for which they are asked, which may not be what the other person actually wanted. Perhaps some of this is craftiness, but their rage at human failure to live up to the precise wording of a deal, failure they see as duplicity, suggests to me that the Besiders are narrowly literal-minded and obsessive about details. This may be another detail that would resonate with a subset of readers.
You might enjoy the story more if you actively avoid looking for real-world parallels to “community of refugees seeks shelter in inter-war Britain; various Brits react with fear and do their best to ensure that the refugees are turned away.” Given when and where the author chose to set her book, it’s hard to avoid seeing the real-world parallels specific to the period. That said, tales about mortals tangling with the fair folk are much older than the inter-war era.
Hardinge’s prose is clear and straightforward without being simplistic. She does a nice job of gradually intensifying the horror of the situation, as Triss discovers more about the deals made with the Besiders, and what the ramifications of those deals might be for Triss and those around her; Triss’ situation is much worse than a simple “I am not what I thought I was.”
I can see why teens would like this book, but I expect many adults will enjoy it as well.
Cuckoo Song is available from Pan MacMillan in the UK and Abrams in the US.