In Frances Hardinge's A Skinful of Shadows, Makepeace, a courageous girl with a mysterious past, defends herself nightly from the ghosts that try to possess her. Then a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard for a moment. And now there's a ghost inside her. The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, but it may be her only defence in a time of dark suspicion and fear. As the English Civil War erupts, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession - or death.
Intrigued? Read the opening below.
The third time Makepeace woke screaming from the nightmare, her mother was angry.
‘I told you not to dream that way again!’ she hissed, keeping her voice low to avoid waking the rest of the house. ‘Or if you do, you must not cry out!’
‘I could not help it!’ whispered Makepeace, frightened by her mother’s fierce tone.
Mother took Makepeace’s hands, her face tense and unsmiling in the early morning light.
‘You do not like your home. You do not want to live with your mother.’
‘I do! I do!’ Makepeace exclaimed, feeling her world lurch under her feet.
‘Then you must learn to help it. If you scream every night, terrible things will happen. We may be thrown out of this house!’
Behind the wall slept Makepeace’s aunt and uncle, who owned the pie shop downstairs. Aunt was loud and honest, whereas Uncle glowered and was impossible to please. Since the age of six, Makepeace had been given the task of looking after her four little cousins, who were always needing to be fed, cleaned, patched up, dressed down or rescued from neighbours’ trees. In between times, she ran errands and helped in the kitchen. And yet Mother and Makepeace slept on a bolster in a draughty little room away from the rest of the household. Their place in the family always felt loaned, as if it could be taken away again without warning.
‘Worse, someone may call the minister,’ continued Mother. ‘Or . . . others may hear of it.’
Makepeace did not know who the ‘others’ might be, but others were always a threat. Ten years of life with Mother had taught her that nobody else could really be trusted.
‘I tried!’ Night after night, Makepeace had prayed hard, then lain in the blackness willing herself not to dream. But the nightmare had come for her anyway, full of moonlight, whispers and half-formed things. ‘What can I do? I want to stop!’
Mother was quiet for a long time, then squeezed Makepeace’s hand.
‘Let me tell you a story,’ she began, as she occasionally did when there were serious matters to discuss. ‘There was a little girl lost in the woods, who was chased by a wolf. She ran and ran until her feet were torn, but she knew that the wolf had her scent and was still coming after her. In the end she had to make a choice. She could keep on running and hiding and running forever, or she could stop and sharpen a stick to defend herself. What do you think was the right decision, Makepeace?’
Makepeace could tell that this was not just a story, and that the answer mattered a great deal.
‘Can you fight a wolf with a stick?’ Makepeace asked doubtfully.
‘A stick gives you a chance.’ Her mother gave a slight, sad smile. ‘A small chance. But it is dangerous to stop running.’
Makepeace thought for a long time.
‘Wolves are faster than people,’ she said at last. ‘Even if she ran and ran, it would still catch her and eat her. She needs a sharp stick.’
Mother nodded slowly. She said nothing more, and did not finish her story. Makepeace’s blood ran cold. Mother was like this sometimes. Conversations became riddles with traps in them, and your answers had consequences.
Frances Hardinge spent her childhood in a huge old house that inspired her to write strange stories from an early age. She read English at Oxford University, then got a job at a software company. However, by this time a persistent friend had finally managed to persuade Frances into sending a few chapters of Fly By Night, her first children's novel, to a publisher. Macmillan made her an immediate offer. The book went on to publish to huge critical acclaim and win the Branford Boase First Novel Award. Known for her beautiful use of language, Frances has since written many critically acclaimed novels, including Verdigris Deep and the Costa Award-winning The Lie Tree.
Author photo © David Levenson