The Goblin Basements

3453163-dump-yard-full-of-dust-mess-and-garbageThe first time he visited the Goblin Basements he was very nearly unprepared. It was Christmas Eve, and the toys had been rioting all day, refusing to obey the simplest orders and breaking each other at the slightest excuse. He had given his laser to two members of the Imperial Guard so they could keep a couple of recalcitrant roboshifters at bay on the bedside table. His bodyguard ‘Thug’ Thorson was under interrogation in the kitchen cupboard, having been arrested the day before by the Bear Police for suspected dealings with a criminal gang on the True Crime channel. Gran had opened the flap of the garbage chute and a little vampire bat had escaped from inside, fluttering around and spraying noxious fumes all over the kitchen till Jenny flattened it with a spatula. ‘Bottom flap must be jammed open,’ said Gran. ‘Go down and fix it, would you, Ben? Quick as you can, tea’s almost ready. I’d go myself if it wasn’t for my gammy leg.’

Showering curses on elderly grandmothers and their gammy legs, Ben left the bears to grill ‘Thug’ Thorson and stumped out of the flat without so much as strapping on a light sabre. ‘Don’t be long, now, Ben,’ Gran called after him. ‘Don’t talk to strangers and don’t turn aside. If you see something useful in the basement bring it up – but never stray from the path whatever happens. You know the rules.’

‘I’m not a kid,’ Ben muttered under his breath, too softly for Gran to hear. He pressed the button for the lift and heard the distant clunk as it came to life in the depths of the building.

Then the lights went out.

The lights in all the public areas of the apartment block were governed by timing devices to save electricity. You switched them on by hand and after so many seconds they switched themselves off, usually at the most inconvenient moment possible. If you needed to switch them on again you could locate the switches because they had little red lights behind them like the eyes of Morlocks – those underground cannibals in the movie Ben had watched when he was eight, whose white fur and yellow teeth he could never forget when darkness took him. He thought of them now and shrugged his shoulders to shake off the shivers. He was older now; if he met a Morlock he would punch out its teeth with a blow of his fist. Still, he wished ‘Thug’ Thorson was with him. Thug wasn’t that big, and his left arm was missing, but he could talk Ben out of his fears with his Texas drawl and his cheerful grin. Maybe he should go back and get him now, before the lift doors opened –

The lift doors opened with a pneumatic hiss.

The cage of the lift was as dark as the corridor, though the light wasn’t governed by a timer. The bulb must be broken again. Ben stepped inside and felt for the button marked ‘Basement’. It would be the bottom button, wouldn’t it? He punched that. The lift gave an angry jerk and began its descent.

This was one of those old-fashioned lifts with open sides shielded with wire mesh to prevent you falling out into the lift shaft. When there was light you could see the concrete walls with their girders moving slowly past you. You could see other things as well: scribblings where, through one of the gaps in the mesh, someone had managed to scrawl his name as the lift went by; and other, more elaborate scribblings which could only have been done with time and patience. Ben had often wondered how they got there. Gran said it was when the lift got stuck, as it often did – then told him not to think about such horrible things, what was wrong with him, he should know better at his age. He thought the scribblings must have been made by the vampire bats or their leather-clad riders, who moved about the shaft independent of elevators.

Down the lift went, and down and down. Surely we should be there by now, Ben thought, tapping his teeth with one of his thumbnails as he always did when nervous. At least it was getting lighter. A pale green glow filtered up from below, and the usual groan and hum of the elevator was accompanied by other noises: a tapping as of distant hammers, a scraping as of shuffling feet. Must be workers in the basement, he told himself, though why they should be clearing sewage pipes or collecting refuse at midnight was beyond his comprehension. They would probably be strangers. When he got there he’d better keep shtum and stay close to the walls. Strangers meant trouble, and he didn’t want trouble so close to Christmas. You never knew what Santa would make of it if a brawl broke out and someone got hurt.

As the pale green light grew stronger he began to notice things. There were no longer doors at intervals in the concrete sides of the shaft; the last one had passed many seconds ago. And the drawings on the cracked grey surface were getting more ornate. They were mostly done in black and red: sharp, ugly little drawings that bore a family resemblance to the sharp, ugly little tap-tap-tapping noises in the depths of the building, which grew louder by the minute. Mostly they seemed to be of little black and scarlet figures, all spikes and jags, torturing each other with a range of complicated instruments. Under some of them slogans were painted in a childish scrawl: THE END IS NIGH, YOU’RE GOING DOWN, or simply DEATH. Ben loosened an imaginary pistol in its holster, acutely feeling his own defencelessness. His anger with Gran was still too hot for the cold to have entered him yet. If he was shivering it wasn’t with fear but with irritation; he would almost welcome, he thought, the chance to work off his feelings in a decent brawl. Deep down, though, he knew it wouldn’t be long before fear took hold, and he hoped against hope that he would have reached the bottom and stepped out of the lift before it did. If not, he would find it hard to leave the shelter of the cramped steel cage.

Now the lift was moving more slowly. Soon it stopped. The green light, as if governed by a timing device, went out. With another sharp hiss the doors slid open – he could tell by the gust of putrescent air that hit his face. Ben squared his shoulders and waited till his breathing was steadier. Then he stepped through.

Blackness swathed him, thick and breathless, muffling his ears so that the scuff of his boots on the concrete floor sounded far away and timeworn. His nose, too, was plugged by a stench that turned the air to acrid tar. He looked around for the small red glow that would mark a light switch. There were several, none close by. As he edged towards one of them along the wall, the distance turned out to be far greater than he had imagined, and was made to seem further still by the jumble of oddments that covered the floor. He kept treading on brittle sticks that snapped or crunched beneath his heels, or kicking aside hard hollow objects that clattered and rolled. The darkness, too, kept changing texture, sometimes stifling him like a pelt, sometimes clinging to his skin like plastic sheeting or trailing sticky cobweb-threads across his face. The journey to the light became a trek and then a nightmare, extending itself beyond all probability until the space he moved through seemed as vast as the vaults of hell and as full of torment.

Just as he reached the little red light – and by this time he had become uncomfortable with its shape – it suddenly vanished. He found himself utterly without coordinates, unsure where he had come from or what lay ahead. He had lost the wall; when he stretched out his hand to find it he felt only the brush of tepid air against his fingertips. Ben turned full circle in a desperate effort to locate another switch, the rubberized heels of his boots letting out small fearful squeals as they ground against concrete.

A squeal rang out to his left.

He stopped dead and stood unmoving, holding his breath, ears pricked to detect any further sounds. There were none.

After what seemed several minutes he could stand it no longer and broke the silence. ‘Anyone there?’ he whispered hoarsely. Then louder: ‘Anyone there?’

At once an echo seized his words and whipped them away into the cavernous blackness, making them rise and rise in pitch as they moved higher and circled faster, until the air was filled with squeaks and the frantic flutter of tiny wings. That was when Ben realized where he was. Everyone knew about the Goblin Basement – the yawning gulf that lay beneath the lowest level of the building, the abode of vampire bats and other things best left unnamed – and though the knowledge made his knees melt under him, it meant that he wasn’t wholly unprepared for what he saw when the light returned, flooding the unwholesome chamber with its luminescence.

The room was vast, as he had guessed, and half filled with rubbish. Parts of the ceiling had fallen in, dropping chunks of plaster on mouldering heaps of rusty cans, old stoves and fridges, twisted hub-caps, plastic bags, crushed cardboard boxes, broken bottles, the arms and heads of dismembered robots, the shattered shells of ancient visiscreens with sense-o-listic sense-stimulators trailing limply from their sides like the tentacles of long-dead octopods. From the holes in the broken ceiling, tubes and chutes stuck out at haphazard angles like severed limbs. Oily liquid drooled from the pipes, slavering the refuse underneath with yellow slime. As Ben crouched in the middle of the room, his features bathed in the uncertain glow from the globe above his head, he heard something crashing as it bounced against the sides of a nearby chute: down, down, down, louder and louder, till it whizzed from the open mouth and smashed to pieces on the rubbish beneath. He knew what the object was when a uniformed leg bounced against his foot: one of the guardsmen he’d left on duty on his bedside table. The leg gave a feeble jerk and then lay still.

The globe flickered bright and dim and dim and bright as if in time to some sickly heartbeat. By it, you couldn’t tell if there was anything else besides the rubbish in the Goblin Basements. But Ben knew there was something else; he’d heard the stories. He looked wildly around for the lift. There it was, impossibly far away to his right across the desert of the concrete floor. Between him and it the concrete stretched, a dusty plain marked with tiny ripples like the ocean bed and littered with overspill from the tip. He swiftly turned to face the rubbish and started to back towards the elevator doors. Always face your enemy, Gran had warned him, unless you fancy the thought of something long and sharp and rusty between your shoulderblades. Not tonight, he didn’t. Not on Christmas Eve, alone and weaponless in an underground dump.

A tap-tap-tapping broke out behind him: the same noise that had sounded in the lift shaft. He glanced over his shoulder, one swift glance, then returned his gaze to the mountain of refuse. The glance had been enough to show him a tall thin figure with an oily cockscomb of black spiked hair, a torn leather jacket, a T shirt asking DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, chains on its chest. Where the face should have been the figure wore a mask made from the front panel of an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner, with a vacant ‘O’ in the middle for dust to be sucked through. The legs were jointed metal lampstands, terminating in high leather boots without soles or toecaps. He could see through the gaps that there were no feet inside them. Strapped to the boots was a pair of rollerblades, a wheel missing from one axle.

The tapping came from a monkey-wrench being gently swung against the elevator doors.

‘Look alive, lads,’ a whistling voice called through the mask. ‘We have a guest to share our midnight frolics!’

Piece by piece the refuse stirred. Each piece turned out to be connected to another piece and moved by a will. The plastic face of a cabbage-patch doll, grotesquely small, attached to the barrel-chest of a boiler, rose on frail mop-o-matic legs and blinked its lashes as it looked Ben over. A small green rubberized monster with lightswitch eyes uncurled itself from under an unsprung armchair, which itself unfolded arms made of copper wire and peered at Ben from bloodshot eyes embedded in the upholstery. Kicking jars and cans aside, the Goblins lurched from their putrescent hiding-places and gathered in a semicircle about ten feet from where Ben stood. Ben went on retreating, right hand held out in the defensive posture favoured by ‘Thug’ Thorson. The thumb of his other hand – the one Thug didn’t have – knocked against his teeth, tapping out a nervous tattoo in time to the tapping of the monkey-wrench against the metal panels.

‘A big fellow, this,’ the whistling voice remarked, close by his shoulder. There was a rumbling sound as the rollerblades changed position on the concrete floor. Ben stopped dead, acutely aware that another step or two would bring him within range of the tool in Cockscomb’s fist. ‘Big enough to do the Jinglebells Waltz, I should imagine,’ the voice whistled on. ‘Or the Crimbo Caper, or the Krampus Can Can. Which will it be?’

‘The Krampus Can Can! The Krampus Can Can!’ ground out a waste disposal unit with iron teeth. ‘There’s so much more leftover waste in the Krampus Can Can.’

‘Can you dance, friend?’ Cockscomb whispered in Ben’s left ear, touching his elbow with the tip of its wrench. Ben swung round suddenly and smashed the panel from its crested head with a blow of his fist, sending it scuttering across the floor like a wrecked toboggan. In the space where the panel had been, a confusion of wires and fuses spat out sparks as if in outrage.

Ben broke into a run. ‘He’s dancing, he’s dancing,’ shrieked the Goblins, scampering to plant themselves between him and the liftshaft. A serve-o-bot mounted on a set of twisted pramwheels screeched past on his right. The faceless rollerblader passed him on his left, trailing sparks and smoke. Ben stopped dead and kicked out backwards with his steel-capped boot, felt the rubber monster bounce away at the impact, dodged around doll-face, then wheeled abruptly and started to run back the way he’d come, towards the mountain of waste. Wrong-footed, the Goblins didn’t recover quickly, which gave him hope. They careened into each other, cursing and laughing hysterically and spinning in circles to see which way he’d gone. He plunged straight into the garbage, driving forward with all his force until he reached the guardsman’s torso and snatched at the pouch he’d seen on its belt.

‘He’s meddling with our property!’ Cockscomb vented in a stream-train shriek. ‘He wants to play rough! Stop hedging, boys, and grapple him! Let him feel us!’

Ben had just managed to unfasten the pouch and get his hand inside when a hubcap, hurled discus-fashion, struck the side of his head. He fell sprawling into a pile of rotting vegetables and the rubber monster landed on his chest. Luckily his hold on the pouch never loosened; he clung to it like death as he rose to his feet. And now the Goblins began to shove him from one to another like a broken puppet. One pushed him in the small of the back so that he stumbled forwards; a second struck him on the cheek so he spun to his left; a third stamped on his boot so hard that he shrieked in pain, despite the steel toecaps. ‘He’s dancing the Krampus Can Can!’ the Goblins screamed, and clapped their hands, claws, gloves, or drill bits in a rising cacophony of wild applause.

In a lull between the punches, shoves and gouges, he managed to grasp the thing in the pouch, the thing he had stolen from Gran last week for just such emergencies. ‘Stop, all of you!’ he bellowed, holding it aloft. So loud he bellowed that even the bat-echoes forgot to transform his words into metallic shrieks. So loud that the Goblins did indeed stop for a moment, stunned into silence by his urgent tone.

The silence lasted only a moment, but it was long enough for him to shout again: ‘I’ve got the thimble! Don’t any of you move! I’ve got the thimble!

A hundred eyes fixed fearful gazes on the tiny thing he held above his head. Red eyes, hole eyes, single eyes, composite eyes, glittering or midnight black in the verdigris light that kept up its flickering from bright to dim, from dim to bright in uneasy response to the irregular current. The waste disposal unit took a step backwards on chickenbone legs, grinding metal teeth. A visiscreen retracted its sense-o-listic tentacles, which had been fully extended to deliver stabs of electric pain to Ben’s face and hands. A stove with lion’s-claw feet lost its balance and fell, crushing a sentient cardboard box that had been standing behind it. Still holding high the thimble, Ben stepped between the Goblins, taking care to hold their eyes with his fierce black stare. For a horrible moment he thought that Cockscomb and Pramwheels would not shrink away from him like the rest. But as he came closer the serve-o-bot trundled off into a corner and Cockscomb skated aside to let him pass. A whispering and murmuring followed him and he turned to face it, because, Gran said, you must never turn your back.

‘The thimble,’ Cockscomb was muttering. ‘He’s got the thimble. What does it do?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ Pramwheels hissed back. ‘I never felt it and I never want to feel it. See how it shines!’

‘Anyone here ever felt the thimble?’ Cockscomb called, and Ben knew his time was short. He picked up the monkey-wrench from where Cockscomb had dropped it and weighed it in his hand. Then he hurled it with all his strength at the glowing green globe in the middle of the ceiling. He had practised throws like this for many months on the roof of the building, hurling spanners, bricks and pool balls at a range of targets, until he could throw almost anything of any size and shape with pinpoint accuracy across a distance of up to fifty feet. The globe exploded, spraying the nearby Goblins with luminous goo. Screams rang out as the affected Goblins began to melt like plastic soldiers on a red-hot stovetop. Ben lunged for the elevator doors and punched the button. The doors began to open. Tires, claws, boots, pincers and caterpillar tracks clashed, rumbled, screeched or squealed as the Goblins rushed him. He flung the wrench at Cockscomb’s head and threw himself backwards, twisting round to punch a button, any button, as he landed inside. The doors hissed together with maddening slowness. A leather glove encasing steel pistons jammed itself between them. Ben gripped it and gave it a yank, the mightiest yank he had ever given; he’d practised for many months to perfect that yank, pulling rivets from twisted girders with bleeding fingers, ripping wheels and accelerator pedals from the wrecks of cars. It came off in his hand. The doors hissed shut. Outside a Goblin howled, a steam-whistle shriek of pain and fury that hurt his ears. Bleeding from head and sides, Ben sank down in a corner, clutching the glove.

As the lift ascended, the lights went on.

At Ben’s floor it stopped with a jolt and the doors hissed open. ‘Thug’ Thorson stood there, his one thumb hooked in his tooled leather belt with the snake’s head buckle, his Stetson tipped at a rakish angle on his shaven skull. With him were two or three members of the Imperial Guard, their uniforms still blackened from the famous battle in the attic a few weeks previously. They lifted Ben to his feet and half led, half carried him along the corridor towards Gran’s flat. ‘Thug’ Thorson stayed behind to cover their retreat with a rapid-fire crossbow.

Gran was at the kitchen sink, peeling tatties for their Christmas dinner. Carols drifted faint and shaky from the ancient wireless. ‘Did you manage to fix the chute?’ she asked without turning. Then, catching sight of his reflection in the kitchen window, she swung round and let out a cry of concern and anger.

‘Oh you poor dear foolish boy!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’ve got yourself thrashed by them boys that live in the rough parts of the building, haven’t you? You turned aside when I told you not to. You spoke to strangers when you should have kept shtum. I’ve told you over and over, but do you listen? Do you heck. Oh, whatever am I going to do with this mindless idiot?’

‘Lock him in the loony bin,’ Jemima suggested, cramming a fistful of tortilla chips between her jaws. She and Jerry were watching a horror film on the visiscreen, surrounded by the usual litter that accompanies such viewings: magazines to hide behind, armchairs likewise, screwed-up crisp packets, popcorn, plates. But Jerry took one swift glance at Ben’s bleeding wounds and let out a shriek fit to wake the dead, then buried his head beneath a pile of cushions.

‘Jemima, mind your wicked tongue!’ Gran snapped. ‘Ben can’t help his intellect. And Jerry, stop that awful racket. It’s bad enough having one fool in the family without you making it two.’

‘I saw a f-f-face at the window!’ Jerry stammered from under the cushions. ‘It was green, and it had red eyes like the lights in the c-c-corridor!’

‘Oh, hold your noise!’ Gran snarled as she steered Ben towards the bathroom. ‘You should be in bed. I always said them sorts of films was bad for young minds.’

But when Ben’s head had been bandaged up and his other wounds seen to, he went straight back to work, despite Gran’s weary demands that he go to bed. He did the rounds of the flat with extra care, stationing a guardsman at every window, a space platoon under every table, a laser-wielding bear on top of the tree. Far into the night he sat with ‘Thug’ Thorson in the living room, making his plans. Now and then he heard Gran muttering in her sleep, or one of the kids crying out in terror at some vivid nightmare: a monster remembered from the movie maybe, or a vision at the kitchen window, or something worse. Tonight, though, Ben didn’t go and comfort them as usual with a story or a wordless song. He was far too busy. Ben was plotting the Battle of the Goblin Basements; and as he plotted he paused now and then to raise his head, listening intently to the tap-tap-tapping that echoed up the waste-chute from the depths of the building.

Frances Hardinge, Fly by Night

[This post contains many spoilers. Sorry.]

51yVWZqt8bL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Can we count as fantasy those texts in which nothing impossible actually happens? There are plenty of books in the fantasy section of my mental library about which this could be said: G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the Gormenghast books, many of the novels in Joan Aiken’s Wolves series, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Given the absence of impossibilities in these narratives – people turning into beetles, acts of magic, fairies, dragons, mythical beings with astounding powers – why do they persist in finding their way onto fantasy booklists? Why do I think of Frances Hardinge as a fantasy writer, despite the fact that her first novel, Fly by Night, only violates the laws of physics once or twice, and then not to a degree significantly more startling than a conventional thriller?

In each of the cases I’ve listed the relationship with the fantastic is, I think, slightly different; but one thing all of them have in common is a knowing dialogue with other books of different degrees of implausibility. Chesterton is in conversation with detective fiction and the supernatural stories of the previous decade, such as Dorian Gray; Peake draws his inspiration from Dickens and the folklore of piracy; Aiken pays homage to Victorian melodrama; Kushner to the regency romances of Georgette Heyer and the swashbuckling adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas. These non-fantastic fantasies are books at two removes from what we think of as reality, and their flamboyant display of their own literariness makes it clear to their readers that they have no pretensions to mimetic realism except as a literary technique, a means of bringing alive a cast of invented characters in a clearly imaginary space. They are concerned to generate for a new readership some literary atmosphere which is particularly important for the writer – or rather, they seek to produce a new atmosphere out of that old one, an atmosphere that fuses the properties of an old literary genre with the urgent concerns of the present.

hardinge-xlarge_trans++1e7PqSjuVlPS9E5Sk9dVRSUvG1VjmqmGsf10Hf8vKfcFly by Night is unusual in that the texts it draws on have rarely been chosen as raw material for the construction of alternative universes. It’s also unusual, even among the fantasies mentioned above, in the degree to which its literariness is foregrounded. Literature – the world of littera or letters – is what it’s all about, and there are few novels that have played with concepts of literacy more wittily. Characters are read, written and printed with unceasing diligence throughout the narrative – at one point the heroine even finds herself stamped all over with printer’s ink – and the consequences of all these literary acts are as various as the people they happen to. Books, in this book, are the proverbial dragon’s teeth in Milton’s celebrated essay on censorship, Areopagitica: the seeds they sow spring up as armed men, and the urgent question that preoccupies Hardinge’s characters is whose side those armed men are on, whether or not their guns are loaded, and at whom they are prepared to shoot. Reading and writing are not, for Hardinge, an unqualified good. They can be instruments of torture, as when thieves are branded with the letter T, making their crimes indelible, their characters irrecoverable (and a character, too, is an act of writing). But reading and writing are always immensely powerful, and their power isn’t easy or even possible to control. That’s a good starting point for a book to take, I think, if it wishes to imprint itself on its reader’s imagination.

If there was ever a time when pens could kill, the early eighteenth century was it, when Pope, Swift, Addison and Steele waged war on the follies of humankind from the smoky interiors of coffee houses, when religion was a fiery theme and the British Empire was spreading its crimson tentacles across the globe, partly funded by the profits from the slave trade. This was also the period of enormous wigs, silly hats and ridiculous clothes worn mostly by men and women of the upper classes. What tends to get remembered from this time is the stuff of romance: the pirates who sailed the early eighteenth-century seas, the highwaymen who haunted its heaths, the plots being hatched by rebels of various stamps in its city streets, the battles fought by its generals. Hardinge’s secondary world, the Shattered or Fractured Realm, is evidently based on early eighteenth-century England, but her book is not concerned to romanticize it. Its only pirate is a barge captain with a fierce temper and a crooked wrist instead of a hook. Its only highwayman finds life on the open heath cataclysmically bad for his health, and the fame his exploits bring him profoundly inconvenient. Its principal rebel is a mild-mannered schoolteacher who has nothing further from his mind than insurrection; its only general an insane Duke who cheats when fighting a duel on behalf of his imaginary lovers. Hardinge’s topic is not so much romance as the processes by which romance is generated: in particular the printing press, whose output turns highwaymen into heroes, ordinary men into revolutionary masterminds, and piratical barge captains into corpses, thanks to the efforts of competing factions to take control of what the printing press produces.

Hardinge’s aim, in fact, is to make her readers think twice about the nature of the book they’re reading: the stuff it’s made of, print, paper, pages, font, words, letters, sentences, chapters, plots, and what these different things can accomplish for good and bad when brought together. And her means of doing this is to pick them apart, in much the same way that she picks apart eighteenth-century England by reducing it to its constituent elements in the Shattered Realm.

The name ‘Shattered Realm’ gets applied to Hardinge’s world in the book’s first chapter by Quillam Mye, a scholar whose work is banned and whose account of the country’s history left unfinished, so that it never gets printed. It’s an unofficial name, then, although it describes the country’s condition with perfect accuracy. And it’s a name that, like Quillam’s forbidden books and pamphlets, escapes from the limits of the written page and finds its way into public ownership, because it’s needed, because the people it describes require its lucid acknowledgement of their political and social situation. Like Dorimare in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, the Realm has undergone a revolution in which the monarchs were expelled, as in the English Civil War of 1645; and like Dorimare it has never undergone a Restoration, whereby the monarchs returned in triumph to resume their position at the head of state. As a result, the divisions between the religious and political beliefs of the Realm’s inhabitants are everywhere obvious. They worship different gods – saint-like figures called the Beloved, with bizarre names and peculiar functions, such as Goodman Palpitattle (He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns), Goodlady Prill (Protector of Pigs), Goodman Grenoble (He Who Keeps Knots out of Moustachios) and Goodman Sicklenose (He Who Lures the Shelled Fish into the Hungry Net). They give their allegiance to different claimants to the throne: King Prael, the ‘king across the Tosteroy Sea’, King Hazard, the ‘king across the Magora mountains’, the Twin Queens, the ‘monarchs beyond the Jottland foothills’. Workers in every trade belong to a different Guild; dwellers in adjacent districts wear distinctive clothing; members of different Guilds or with different beliefs frequent different coffee houses. Yet these diverse affiliations are not absolute ones. The inhabitants of the Realm seem perfectly comfortable with their differences, and the chief dangers in the book are posed by fanatics who want total unity: a unified religion, a plain understanding of right and wrong, a single ruler, one set of keys to all the kingdom’s doors, a censorship system that imposes identical restraints on all printed texts, and so on. In Hardinge’s Realm, centrism is pitched against eccentricity, conformity against the marginal, consistency against multiplicity, and the artificiality of imposing any uniform regime on a wildly diverse population is brought out by the crazy inventiveness of their names: Aramai Goshawk, Mabwick Toke, Eponymous Clent, Vocado Avourlace, Mosca Mye. The Shattered Realm owes its fragmentary nature to the splits between large and small segments of its populace, and the question of how to bind the nation together without losing the distinctiveness of its fragments is a vexed one, to which Hardinge offers no simple answer.

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Mosca by Antonia Russell-Clark

The book, too, is a thing of fragments working together to solve a problem: how to find a place in the Realm for its diminutive heroine, twelve-year-old Mosca Mye. Each chapter takes for its title a letter of the alphabet which is linked to the aspect of the Realm it reveals to Mosca: ‘E is for Extortion’, ‘L is for Locksmith’, ‘S is for Sedition’, and so forth. The format of these chapter titles is that of old alphabets used to teach children their letters; but where conventional alphabets of this kind refer to simple everyday things (A is for Apple, B is for Bread, C is for Cat), Hardinge’s letters allude to the criminal underclass and the legal system that seeks to contain them. This is because Mosca herself is doomed from the start to consort with felons. Her father is an exile, sent to Chough from Mandelion for writing seditious tracts about the non-existence of the Beloved, the corruption of the powerful, and the universal necessity for freedom of expression. What’s more, her father taught her to read, which is another violation of convention in the Realm (considering her sex) and has thus invested her eyes with a power that renders her permanently suspect to the illiterate villagers among whom she grew up:

Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad. […] Mosca might as well have been the local witch in miniature.

Here Mosca, whose name means ‘fly’ in Italian, gets inextricably linked with the words she loves, which crawl around readers’ brains (so the Choughians think) and drive them mad like the constant buzzing of flies in a limited space. The villagers’ reaction to this danger is to deprive the girl of reading material. When her father dies they burn his books with the aim of restricting his daughter’s development as a reader. But the result of this act of censorship is precisely the opposite of what was intended. In response to the lack of books, the girl reads everything else instead: the arbitrary rules the villagers live by, the monotonous rigidity of their existence, the fascinating ways of passing strangers. Hardinge’s constant references to her ink-black eyes insist on their agency, the agency of a child who is always playing the old alphabet game of ‘I spy’ (and the chapter headings could also be taken as answers to the game as she plays it). Mosca picks out unremarked elements of her surroundings and uses them to her advantage in the competition she has been forced to take part in since her father’s death: the struggle for survival in a hostile environment. In the process she continues her father’s work of challenging other people to see what she sees, with drastic results, in the end, for the Realm itself.

710437Mosca is not just a reader; she’s a writer too. She carries with her a violent goose called Saracen, whose name identifies him as another outsider in the village that raised him – hence their strange alliance. Quillam Mye, as his name suggests, wrote his books with a quill, and the best writing quills are fashioned from the primary feathers of a goose or swan. Mosca, then, carries a living sheaf of quills on her adventures, quills with a will of their own and a belligerent energy that reduces armed men to quivering wrecks in any confrontation. The goose also embodies her resistance to the most deadly threat she faces on her travels: the Birdcatchers, religious fanatics whose name alludes to their obsession with restricting the free movement of minds and bodies, as expressed in their vicious practice of trapping birds, men, women and children in metal cages, then murdering them by starvation or burning. The Birdcatchers think of anyone who disagrees with them as heretics, and Saracen’s name connects him with the ultimate heresy, a different religion altogether. During their period of power in the Realm, the Birdcatchers took control of the printing presses and restricted what could be written to texts authorized by their church. Saracen’s quills can no more be controlled than Quillam’s pen, and Mosca’s alliance with him marks her out as a resister of religious intolerance as well as of censorship, like her father before her.

With Saracen’s help she finds her way into the underworld of the Realm, where she learns new words: the argot of the streets which is designed to befuddle the ignorant as surely as the professional jargon spoken by lawyers, doctors, clerics, politicians and poets. But her vigilant eyes ensure that she also picks up the words of the elite, startling strangers with her command of a vocabulary to which by rights she should have had no access. This little fly gets everywhere, like letters, those insectile scrawlings which can be used for the purposes of all classes, all plots, all tricksters with the nous to arrange them in different orders.

Letter by letter, she makes her way through the Shattered Realm, assembling her own unofficial version of the country, its past, its present, its possible futures. It’s a journey from rigidity to fluidity, from settled certainties to infinite possibilities, from being written to writing the world for herself with her own peculiar slant. At the beginning of the novel she is given a name that brands her forever as an affiliate of the least propitious of Beloveds, Palpitattle – the Realm’s equivalent of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies. Her father insists she be given this name because she was born on Palpitattle’s feast day, and children in the Realm are always named for their patron Beloved; despite his atheism, the historian considers accuracy to be sacrosanct and will not permit the infant’s nurse to change the record of her birth by half an hour to give her the advantage of a better title. From this moment her name allies her to unpalatable truths – after all, flies are a necessary element in any ecosystem, like the detritus they feed on.[1] But flies are not easily contained, and by the end of the book Mosca is making her own choices, all of which involve liberating words and people from unwelcome constraints. This liberation, too, is associated with the alphabet, since Hardinge makes sure the procession of letters in her chapter titles never reaches Z: the final chapter heading is ‘V for Verdict’, and in it Mosca passes judgement on the people of Realm, just as they have judged her, while heading off in a new direction, not dictated by the conventions of the classroom. Her new direction was predicted, like the start of her life, by her father, with his passion for truth: ‘True stories seldom have endings’, he tells her, thus ensuring she will finally settle for the life of a vagabond (V stands for that too), and eschew the happy ever after of romance.

BlackbirdInk fanart - Mosca and Saracen in Chough
Mosca and Saracen by Lesya Blackbirdink

The movement from restraint to liberation is embodied in water as well as in letters. The village of Chough is full of the sound of water thanks to its dreadful climate, but the limescale in the water ensures that everything immersed in it turns to stone. The connection with the mental rigidity of Chough’s occupants is obvious. So too is the fact that it’s the criminal underworld that takes best advantage of this rigidity, offering an escape route to the child who suffers most from the villagers’ petrifaction. An itinerant conman, Eponymous Clent, spins a web of yarns from their hopes and dreams, and is condemned to the stocks when his scams are exposed. Mosca’s first act of liberation is to set him free, and in the process to free herself, since he can act as her mentor on the unfamiliar highways through the Realm she intends to take. It’s Clent who introduces her to Jennifer Bessel, a former gang leader who now sells objects turned to stone by the waters of Chough. Jennifer’s trade shows how ordinary things can be turned to new uses with a bit of ingenuity. So too does the barge captain, Partridge, with whom Clent and she take passage to Mandelion. Partridge is smuggling statues of Beloveds stolen from shrines in the hold of his barge, with the aim of melting down the lead they contain to make bullets for a planned insurrection. Thanks to Clent, Bessel, Partridge and their fellow felons, the rigidity bestowed by the waters of Chough melts away to be replaced by fluidity – of words, scams, improvised falsehoods and imaginative circumventions of authority (including the Guild of Watermen, who serve as the river police). By the end of the book Mosca is utterly at home on the water – as well as with felons of all stamps – while two at least of her enemies have met their end by it.

She has also learned the fluidity that characterizes human affairs, in spite of all attempts to render them rigid and simple – that is, to divide people into simple categories of good or bad, orthodox or heretic, law-abiding citizen or hardened criminal, or to write them into the constricting clichés of romance. Everyone in Hardinge’s world has a back story which makes them capable of eliciting sympathy. Everyone is to some extent connected with everyone else, and Mosca’s assessment of every major character changes in the course of the narrative, sometimes more than once. So too does her assessment of herself. At different stages of her journey she thinks of herself in different terms, as she aligns herself first with one character or interest group and then with another. This fluidity of narrative and personality can be seen as an act of re-education of her readers on the part of the author: the invention of a new kind of writing, with Mosca and her unorthodox schooling as an avatar of the reader, learning day by day to translate her growing skills in literacy into a fresh understanding of the richly interwoven languages of Hardinge’s world and our own.

The chief architect of this education is the conman, Eponymous Clent, whose first name links him to the title of the book, thereby signaling the crucial role he plays in its plotting. The eponymous hero of any narrative is the one whose name appears on the title page, and Clent is a fly-by-night if ever there was one, whose lies keep landing him in trouble even as they propel the story he gets caught up in. Trouble is what stories thrive on; without it there would be no tension to hold our attention for page after page, no crisis to trace through its convolutions to resolution. Clent himself allies the art of the professional fibber and thief with the art of the wordsmith. When Mosca bluntly tells him what he does for a living – ‘You tell lies for money’ – he replies by spinning himself a cloak of artistic respectability which serves as a perfect smokescreen for his scams. ‘My child,’ he tells her,

you have a flawed grasp of the nature of myth-making. I am a poet and storyteller, a creator of ballads and sagas. Pray do not confuse the exercise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic.

Mosca sees at once that he is right, since he drew her to him in the first place with his language, the fire-new phrases he brought to rural Chough (mellifluous, mendacity) which she ‘stroked […] in her thoughts like the curved backs of cats’. At the same time she sees that she is right also: he may supply her with ‘Words, words, wonderful words’, but they are ‘lies too’, and it’s this linguistic duplicity that governs their relationship throughout the novel.

200px-FlyByNight-FrancesHardingeAfter the girl has freed him from the stocks, Clent employs her as his secretary – literally, the keeper of his secrets – despite his assumption that (as a country girl) she cannot read or write, and despite the fact that he has no intention of taking her into his confidence. But it’s through her unsuspected skill as a reader that she discovers his only secret: a letter that reveals his identity as a spy for the Guild of Stationers, the organization in charge of the printing and censorship of books – the organization with which her father worked before his exile. The discovery puts Clent in her power, as she had earlier put herself in Clent’s by revealing that she’d torched her uncle’s mill; but it also connects Clent in her mind with her dead father, that uncompromising advocate of truth who was sent into exile for his insistence that people be permitted to peddle lies in print, unmolested by censorship. It’s appropriate, then, that Clent and Mosca should turn to writing as a means of cementing their relationship, and that the writing in question should be as mutual as their knowledge of each other’s secrets. Clent draws up a contract with Mosca, a document that binds him as well as her, and which she co-authors. But if words are lies, then a contract written in words can never be binding, and Mosca quickly loses confidence in the document, reading Clent’s dialogue and behaviour in a sinister new light thanks to her newly-acquired belief that he hides a more terrible secret than spying – she thinks him a murderer, which makes his cheerful garrulity deeply sinister. Later she recovers her former opinion of him, as a self-interested but largely loyal rogue; but in the meantime it’s become clear how the same words and actions can be subjected to entirely different interpretations, a revelation that applies with even greater force to the other characters she encounters.

Lady Tamarind, for example – the first woman she meets on the road after Jennifer Bessel – embodies a mass of carefully calculated contradictions. On first appearance she puts herself across as a coolly detached but still romantic damsel in distress, a white-clad fairytale princess whose damaged coach is attacked by highwaymen, placing her in a situation from which she permits herself to be rescued by the eloquent Clent. But the unvarying whiteness of her clothing also marks her out as a blank page, unreadable to others, unwritten on and therefore unaffiliated, available to be filled with any text of her choice that might advance her Machiavellian interests. She is a master wordsmith, like Clent, but on a grander, less human scale. Her main motive for avoiding robbery is to keep possession of an illegal signet ring which she uses to forge letters from the Twin Queens to her brother the Duke – who is obsessed with the identical monarchs –thus manipulating him into acting as she pleases. She also wields a printing press which she uses to sow fear throughout the city, again in her own interests, and employs the word-loving urchin Mosca as her spy, exchanging notes with her through the medium of a feather: a quill planted in the ground as a memorial to the many victims of the fanatical Birdcatchers. For a while Mosca is as obsessed with her as the Duke is with his uninterested lovers; she dreams of serving her and even becoming her, a distant figure clothed in white as a symbol of her exemption from the common dirt that binds together the rest of the Realm. But Lady Tamarind is not content with mere detachment – with not being written; she seeks to write others, as her scripting of her brother’s non-existent correspondence with the Queens makes clear. In this, ironically enough, she resembles the brother she seeks to displace, whose obsession with a pair of perfect doubles prompts him to rebuild the city, bit by bit, in perfect and impractical symmetry, at the cost of demolished homes and mass unrest. Lady Tamarind’s immaculate clothes have an equivalent in the Duke’s concern with his own appearance: he possesses the largest collection of wigs in the Realm, and is followed everywhere by a servant carrying spares. If the different parts of the Realm have different styles of garment, the distinctive fashions of Lady Tamarind and her brother set them apart, identifying them as outsiders, like the ousted monarchs of the Realm, for ever above and beyond their subjects – and therefore irrelevant to them, despite all their efforts to write them (and the city’s geography) into submission.

tamarind01-c
Lady Tamarind by Tealin

Lady Tamarind is not, however, as detached from her people as she thinks. For one thing, she enlists Clent as well as Mosca as her spy after he rescues her from the highwaymen; and between them, Clent and Mosca seem to have connections with everyone else in the Shattered Realm. For another, the lady has servants and admirers, women of an inferior class who aspire to emulate her ‘look’ – and it’s one such act of emulation that leads Mosca to expose Lady Tamarind’s darkest secret: her control of the clandestine printing press with which she disseminates fear throughout the city for her own nefarious purposes. One of Tamarind’s maids sells a dress of hers – pure white, of course – which has been blemished in a distinctive way by contact with the press, and Mosca learns to ‘read’ the dress after finding the press and getting blemished with printer’s ink in a similar manner. In the process she exposes Tamarind as a liar far more deadly than Clent. Her fibs have led to imprisonment and danger of death for many, and her plans for the city include its seizure by the most deadly absolutists of them all, the Birdcatchers – who paradoxically see themselves as the unique custodians of truth, despite their alliance with the Duke’s mendacious sister. Where Clent wields words as tools in an elaborate and democratic competition, a game of ‘I spy’ in which everyone and anyone can join, Lady Tamarind’s words are designed to limit and suppress the words of others, to reduce them to a petrified silence, the oral equivalent of her pristine garments. This also sets her in opposition to Mosca’s father, whose controversial works are often mistaken for Birdcatcher propaganda, but who devoted his career to the fight for freedom of expression. Tamarind uses words as well as clothes to distinguish herself from others, to control them – and it’s Mosca’s awareness that words themselves, with their multiple meanings, can’t be controlled, that leads to the ultimate defeat of Tamarind’s plans, the frustration of her intended narrative.

The most prominent of Tamarind’s servants is Linden Kohlrabi, a young man so different from what he seems that his very name may not be his own – despite the taboo against changing your name in the Shattered Realm. His first meeting with Mosca entails an act of secrecy – he conceals her from a pursuer beneath his cloak – and this effectively defines their relationship as one of shared confidences, though of a very different kind than the confidences Mosca shares with Eponymous Clent. Mosca takes him for a replacement father, the association confirmed when he gifts her a pipe very like her father’s, which she had used – before she lost it – as an aid to thought. Kohlrabi meanwhile takes her as a copy of himself, an orphan whose father died for a cause – just as he reads her father’s works as confirmations of his own convictions as a lifelong member of the Birdcatcher cult. He is wrong, of course – Hardinge’s awareness of words’ duplicity makes this inevitable. Quillam Mye was never a Birdcatcher, he was a freethinker and a sceptic. And Mosca is not blindly loyal to her father, which makes her wholly unlike Linden. She used her father’s pipe to think for herself, not to share his thoughts; and in the process she followed his instructions not to let herself be told what to think by others, and thus not to subject herself to inward censorship. For this reason, it’s also inevitable that Mosca’s view of Kohlrabi will change, as will his of her, with tragic results. But the link forged between them ensures that neither finally sees the other as an enemy, despite Kohlrabi’s willingness, in the end, to take Mosca’s life.

Kohlrabi is a fundamentalist. He is willing to defend Lady Tamarind’s press by murder, because for him words must only ever be used to defend his faith, which is inherited, not self-discovered – handed down wholesale from his father, who he always took at his word. Given this, it is paradoxical that words themselves have little interest for him. It is their meaning that concerns him, and his certainty that this meaning can be conveyed by language without ambiguity or misunderstanding. When Mosca tells him, towards the end, that she knows he is a Birdcatcher, he dismisses the term as an empty signifier, scoffing that ‘the whole country is frightened of a word’, and adding that a word has never killed anyone – ironically enough, given his murder of Partridge to protect a printing press that was being used to foment civil war. He goes on to explain the Birdcatcher faith:

that there is something higher and better in this world than the dirt and darkness which surrounds us […] something pure, something so bright that its light could enchant everything else, like sunlight through a stained-glass window.

The man who makes this statement has blood on his hands and wishes to stain them with more. The conviction that things are see-through, that words or objects can be used as a means to gain access to some immutable truth, is the first step on the road to murder, itself the first step on the road to genocide. From this perspective it would be easy to persuade oneself that those who stand in the way of the light must be disposed of, and that the process of disposal is no more horrifying than the removal of dirt from a lens, the dispersal of darkness to illuminate a room. Mosca reponds to this conviction with the sentence she first applied to the conman Clent: ‘Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.’ The difference is that she now knows the difference between Clent’s lies and the lies of a killer. Clent’s lies spring from an entirely different perception of language; and Clent’s perception brings life and liberty, where Kohlrabi’s brings only death, petrifaction, and imprisonment in iron cages.

Kohlrabi, then, is Clent’s inverted double, just as Lady Tamarind is Mosca’s (though as we’ve seen, the relationship between these four is more complicated than this). Kohlrabi and Tamarind aim to take control of the story of their country, writing it into something rigid, colourless and lifeless. Clent, on the other hand, improvises his stories spontaneously, desperately, with no overarching plot or scheme at all; yet his word-spinning finally sparks an uprising that briefly unites all the disparate elements of the Realm against the Duke, the Lady and Kohlrabi’s Birdcatchers. To save Tamarind from the highwaymen, Clent writes a ballad about their leader, Captain Blythe, which turns him into a hero; this makes Blythe the obvious choice for leader of the rising. Clent later writes a letter to his employers, the Guild of Stationers, claiming that a harmless lawyer called Pertellis is a deadly radical, who runs the clandestine press which the Guild is attempting to shut down. In the process Clent makes of Pertellis another popular hero ideally suited to supply the theory behind Blythe’s insurrection (and the theory he provides consists of the writings of Quillam Mye in defence of free speech). Clent’s letter falls into the hands of the Guild of Locksmiths, bringing them together (through circuitous routes) with their bitter rivals, the Guild of Stationers, as well as Blythe, Pertellis and Clent, in a floating coffee-house full of radicals, the Laurel Bower. The name of the coffee house connects it with poetry, of which Clent is a professed practitioner. And thus the web of Clent’s ‘way with words’, as Mosca puts it, comes full circle, confirming him as the disheveled Virgil, so to speak, of Hardinge’s farcical epic, and as the unacknowledged catalyst of insurrection.

Clent, then, has a kind of weight despite his comic appearance – and I’m not just referring to his physical corpulence. At the beginning of the book Kohlrabi identified him as dangerous, and by the end it’s clear the young Birdcatcher was right, since it’s Clent and Mosca between them who bring him down. Words, then, when used in the anarchic but expert way Clent has with them, can make things happen, for all Kohlrabi’s contempt for them as weightless objects, window panes that let light through but have no substance. Farce and pastiche, too, of which Clent is also a practitioner, can make real things happen. The marriage house where Clent stays, for instance – a semi-legal site where people get tied in bands of holy matrimony when the church refuses to tie them – plays an integral part in the improvised plot that leads to the fall of Lady Tamarind and the Duke: it’s here that Kohlrabi frames Clent for Partridge’s murder, the act that leads in a roundabout way to Mosca’s discovery of the clandestine press. And for all the absurdity of the ceremonies conducted in it, for all the Whitehall farces it encourages and takes part in, the marriage house also stands for something real as well as a fantasy, a tissue of dreams. One of its denizens, the young wedding-cake-maker who becomes Mosca’s friend and ally, learns about love there, a discovery that acquires substance in her romance with a young apprentice. Romance, like words, like poetry, like friendship, like loyalty, like truth, can be a source of joy as well as of danger. Nothing in this book is just one thing, and the lightest, most casual deployment of words can form part of a movement, can bring down tyrannies or shore them up.

Frances-HardingeI suspect that this is where, for me, Hardinge’s first novel intersects with the fantastic. Fantasy is a genre that has been consistently marginalized as a form of entertainment, branded as merely popular, merely escapist – much like farce, or its barely respectable parent, comedy. Hardinge’s novel affiliates itself with marginal people and popular fantasies, broadly defined, of every stripe: ballads, thrillers, detective novels, romances, fairy tales, farces, pamphlets, religious cults. To bring all these ingredients together in a coherent plot is an act of ingenuity. To make that plot a serious one, with political weight, would seem impossible. This is what she achieves; and in doing so she affirms my conviction that the fantastic, for all its lightness, is where we live, and that we must pay close attention to it if we don’t want it either to dull our minds or to be stolen from us by the forces of darkness.

They exist, those forces. We have them in us as well as around us, like Clent and Mosca, who are spies as well as heroes, traitors as well as resisters of tyranny. Thanks to Hardinge’s marvelously light but intricate novels, we now have the means to see more clearly how those forces work. We had better read her books if we want to know how the farcical and quasi-fantastic political events of 2016 could possibly have happened.

 

Notes

[1] Choughs too feed on detritus, above all manure; hence the poor reputation these birds enjoyed in the time of Shakespeare. So the citizens of Chough are more closely related to Mosca than they might have liked.