Curses and Conspiracies
By Frances Hardinge
Frances Hardinge’s 2023 Unraveller is a stand-alone secondary universe fantasy novel.
Raddith is a land of wonder. It is situated next to the Wilds, where one might easily encounter beings known elsewhere only in horrified folk tales. Wildness seeps into Raddith. One unfortunate effect is that seemingly unremarkable people are from time to time imbued with supernatural power, power with which to express their ire at life’s injustices. These lucky few are known by their victims as “cursers,” provided of course that the horrific transformations worked on the victims leave them able to speak.
Kellen’s curse unravels textiles. The curse has also given him a unique knack for unravelling curses (if not his own). There are many charlatans in Raddith, charlatans who claim to be able to undo curses. They cannot. Kellen, however, can see the curse, know who cast it, and can sometimes undo the curse. One might think this would be a guarantee of wealth and fame. It’s not.
If Kellen is to undo the curse, he must know what the victim did to upset or hurt the cursor. Sometimes the affront is minor or no affront at all (Kellen’s assistant Nettle and her siblings were transformed into birds by a spiteful stepmother, apparently for the crime of existing). Sometimes the affront is criminal or too embarrassing to admit. In those cases, victims are very likely to reject Kellen’s diagnosis and grow quite angry. Even revengeful. Many cases end with Kellen fleeing the person he just helped.
Approached by an ominous government agent named Gall, Kellen is informed that the authorities have good reason to believe a curser exposed by Kellen may now be targeting Kellen. Unfortunately, the curser’s identity is unknown. The real puzzler is how a curser Kellen foiled would be in a position to curse him at all.
Cursing people is illegal. Once the guilty parties are exposed, they are dragged off to the Red Hospital and confined. Very few people ever return from the Red Hospital. It is very hard for cursers to convince the authorities they are reformed and are no longer a threat to society.
A quick tour of the Red Hospital reveals a heretofore undisclosed fact: someone in a position of authority is arranging for cursers to be replaced with innocent people before they reach the Red Hospital. Whoever the player on the other side is, they are assembling a team of cursers. While the ultimate goal is unclear, in the short term the cursers are an effective way to eliminate impediments.
It’s not hard to uncover the mastermind. By the time the villain is exposed, however, he has created for himself a powerbase that poses a legitimate threat to the government, one that may be able to force the state to accede to the mastermind’s conditions. High on the list of demands? Hand over Kellen the Unraveller.
In this setting, iron can quench magic1, so it’s possible to contain cursers with iron bonds. In some cases, such as Kellen’s effect on textiles, the same trick will work on curses, at least to an extent. Kevin often wears iron-studded gloves, which keep his curse from unravelling his clothes. There’s also less risk that his unravelling trick will turn itself to other targets, like cellular structure.
This book is among other things a critique of what I will call the Batman method of conflict resolution. Kellen’s standard operating procedure is to show up, determine the victim, determine the nature of the curse, determine who cast it and why, unravel the curse with applied psychology, hand the miscreants over for transportation to the Red Hospital, then exit followed by accolades (theory) or angry insults (practice). Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear this approach, while having the advantage of being very straightforward, has significant flaws.
The novel is also a critique of the draconian punishment school. In Raddith’s defense, cursers are extremely dangerous and in many cases incapable of (or utterly uninterested in) self-control2. However, among the logical consequences of this system is that it has created a community of cursers, many of whom didn’t ask for or want their power3, who are highly motivated to see themselves as an oppressed minority. Who are, as the novel makes clear, easily manipulated into joining what they think is a revolutionary cabal.
This is the second Hardinge novel I’ve read (the other, Cuckoo’s Song, is reviewed here). Although the settings of these two books are very different, there are similarities: young people finding themselves, the challenges of bargaining with beings who don’t think like humans, mysteries to … unravel, and the horrifying consequences of revelation.
While I found the plot pace a little pokey in this novel, that could simply be my current impatience with longer works. Otherwise, this book is of comparable or even higher quality than Cuckoo’s Song: the prose is enjoyable, and the characters are such that one will care what happens to them. I really should read more Hardinge.
Unraveller is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Book Depository).
Chapters-Indigo was still down due to a cyberattack at the time of posting. Once it is back up, I will try to remember to come back and add the link.
1: Another example of weird synchronicity: as I type this, I am watching an energetic discussion in the Drakar Och Demoner table top roleplaying game community about how exactly the rule about iron quenching magic works in practice.
2: Cursers uncaught also grow more dangerous as they learn to use their powers.
3: Where does the power come from? Supernatural beings who were just trying to be helpful.