“Award-winning” is a phrase often attached to the name Frances Hardinge; it is almost something of an understatement. Her book The Lie Tree not only won a 2015 Costa award in the children’s category, it also won Costa Book of the Year – the first children’s book to do so since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass in 2001.
Fantasy may be Hardinge’s genre, but her themes are painfully real. In The Lie Tree, her protagonist Faith becomes entangled with a tree that feeds upon lies and grows only in the dark. Unraveller is set in a world where curses come true. The consequences of hatred are literal and horrible.
In the country of Raddith lie the Wilds, a strip of misty, marshy woodlands populated by odd, spider-like creatures called Little Brothers (among other things). The Little Brothers have the ability to leave curse eggs, a kind of miniature bomb of magic power, within those unfortunate enough to make their acquaintance.
When, in a moment of hatred, the curses are unleashed, they result in warped poetic justice; a merchant whose actions drove someone to suicide finds his hands ooze blood; a selfish seductress becomes a beast who drowns men. Once a person has become a curser, they are likely to curse again. Thus, when caught, they are locked in a place called the Red Hospital, somewhere between a prison and an asylum.
Out to change this warped world is Kellen, a weaver boy with a very particular skill: he and he alone can unravel curses and set the accursed free. Kellen is a kind of Sherlock Holmes of the emotions, a therapist seen through a fantasy lens. To unravel a curse, he must untangle the threads of desire and hate that led to it being placed.
One of those he has helped is his sidekick Nettle, a watchful girl whose stepmother turned her into a heron. Nettle may now be free from her curse, but a part of her is a bird still. Her brother Yannick, cursed in the same moment, has chosen to remain a gull, unable to bear the pain of returning to human form.
As the story itself unravels, Hardinge gently asks important questions about individuals’ – and society’s – capacity for cruelty, and mercy. In one of the book’s most memorable passages, a character harbouring a curse egg falls in with a band of other cursers. Anyone with even a passing interest in how someone might find themselves ensnared by anti-vaxxers or the alt-right would do well to read the passage in which the curser reflects, “How intoxicating it was, this feeling of being liked!”
Hardinge is a worthy successor to Pullman, yes, but in fact, she is in a league that is entirely her own, a writer whose ideas are modern yet timeless, their execution compelling, eerie, sublime.
If you are a teenager who has not yet discovered her books, seize upon them. And if you believe yourself to have outgrown books like Unraveller, allow Hardinge to set you straight.