A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge || Ethereal and Unusual

“If someone throws aside their pride and begs with all their heart, and if they do so in vain, then they are never quite the same person afterwards. Something in them dies, and something else comes to life.”
Skinful of Shadows Cover

This is the story of a bear-hearted girl . . .

Sometimes, when a person dies, their spirit goes looking for somewhere to hide. 
Some people have space within them, perfect for hiding. 

Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts which try to possess her in the night, desperate for refuge, but one day a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard. 

And now there’s a spirit inside her. 

The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, and it may be her only defence when she is sent to live with her father’s rich and powerful ancestors. There is talk of civil war, and they need people like her to protect their dark and terrible family secret. 

But as she plans her escape and heads out into a country torn apart by war, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession – or death.


Going into this review, I’m going to admit that I’m at a lost for specific words. Frances Hardinge has that effect, strangely enough. Her work has this unusual quality to it that I struggle to pin down but enjoy all the same, and the genres she blends are oddly complementary.

Earlier this year, I read The Lie Tree, a historical fiction novel with the faintest element of fantasy that turned the whole story into a dark and compelling read. It was eerie and unsettling and captivating, and somehow, in a whole new setting and with new fantastic elements, Hardinge has managed to reproduce that odd feeling in A Skinful of Shadows.

I was worried going in. It opened rather stiffly, and almost religiously, a combination I’m not keen on. But so quickly, it shed that shell, moving away from purely historical 1640s England into an England with ghosts hungry for bodies to keep them from unraveling after death. It was not a novel about religion, written in inflexible prose. It unfurled into a novel about fighting back, fighting for the right reasons, blossoming into something completely unique.

I really wish I could be less vague. I do. But there’s something about the quality of the novel that’s so incredibly elusive to me, that I don’t think I could adequately describe to anyone but folks who’ve already read it. That’s unusual in itself, given that I’m not often at a loss for words. But I am here, happily so.

I really enjoyed the main character’s growth, from scared little girl afraid to stop running away to scared girl afraid to stop running but fighting nonetheless. Makepeace (yes, that’s her name) is a wonderful example of a character who grows and learns and makes mistakes and adapts. She’s in regular peril, but she clings to what advantages she has and takes what risks she’s ready for in the name of freedom. She’s resourceful and persistent, and moreover, she’s compassionate, a trait I admire a lot in characters faced with decisions that will ultimately put them between a rock in a hard place. She isn’t perfect and doesn’t pretend to be.

And the plot? Oh my goodness, does it move. I couldn’t believe how much was packed into this book, how it came full circle. I wish maybe that it had been a little less full, but at the same time, it was never dull, especially as it came closer and closer to the climax. Plus, I adored the fantasy element Hardinge introduced in the form of ghosts; this isn’t a high fantasy sort of novel. It remains historical fiction with a single paranormal addition that somehow complements the historic aspects in the oddest ways. It’s a clever, engaging blend, and I think by having only a single fantasy element, Hardinge managed to develop it fully and carefully, instead of getting too caught up in all manner of magics.

My only complaint was that the side characters fell flat, including the antagonists’ motives, which felt rather familiar in some ways. Nonetheless, I liked Makepeace and the overall plot well enough to overlook this and stick to it through the end, and I’m very pleased that I did. Its odd charm won me over thoroughly, and I suspect I’ll be looking for more of Hardinge’s work in the future. She has a gift I can’t articulate, and I’m thoroughly impressed.

Have you read A Skinful of Shadows or any other novel by Frances Hardinge? Do you get what I mean by that quality I just can’t seem to name? And if you haven’t, are you interested enough to give it a go? Also, what books have you loved that captivate you in ways you just can’t explain?

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