Cuckoo Song
Frances Hardinge
British Fantasy Award Winner 2015

Cuckoo Song is apparently a middle grade book. I would never have guessed that. Not, as they say, in a million years.

I mean, yes, the protagonists are in that age range. But, the writing is dark, twisty, and… gorgeous. There are situations that are hair-raisingly terrifying and creepy and all the characters are flawed and interesting–even the adults.

My only conclusion is that either the standards for middle grade books have changed significantly since I was in middle grade (which, considering that the category didn’t exist in the 1970s, is very likely), or British middle grade kids are more sophisticated than I am (also extremely possible.)

What I’m trying to say is that Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song is brilliant.

It actually starts out with that cliché scenario that, as writers, we’re told no editor anywhere will tolerate: character wakes up in a strange place with no idea who they are. I’ve been taught that this is a hook that’s tiring and difficult to pull off properly, because, with all the blank slateness going on, the reader has nothing and no one to care about, nothing to hold on to.

Yet, Hardinge manages to make the not-knowing/blankness into a gnawing terror for the main character (and, consequently, the sympathetic reader). Similarly, it’s not overdone. Memories and impressions start to surface almost right away, and our heroine is fairly convinced in the first few paragraphs that she is Triss Crescent, the eldest daughter of Piers Crescent, famous local civil engineer. Right away, too, Triss begins to sense that there’s something terribly wrong–many many secrets–not just the obvious one of her memory loss and the fact that her younger sister, Pen, is terrified of her and calls her out as an imposter and a monster.

The setting is post-World War I England. Normally, I’m not fond of period novels because either I’m expect to know more about the era than I do, or it’s all just window dressing–fancy clothes and servants in a kind of Downton Abbey pastiche. Hardinge walks a perfect line for me in this novel, giving me what I need historically to underscore character or theme, and, moreover, and both the city and the time actually become characters of their own, in that way of really rich, complex books.

While the history is woven in well and explained adequately, some of the magical elements are presented as givens–that all of the readers will know exactly what’s going on (and the danger of it for our heroine) when, at one point, a woman in an isolated cabin starts to cook soup in eggshells.

I knew immediately, due to being a super Irish/fairy lore-nerd in high school. The title is also an unexplained clue, but requires that you know the etymology of the term ‘cuckolded’ or know the nesting habits of certain varieties of cuckoo birds.

I found those moments to be my favorite, because I love that feeling of being an intellectually ‘with it’ reader. I will sometimes point to the page and look up at my family and shout, “I know this! I get it!”

Without giving too much away, I want to say that the other appeal of this novel is to do with the fact that the point of view is, shall we say, similar to that of The Girl With All The Gifts. It’s an interesting trend that I have to say I highly approve of, especially when handled by a master.

And Cuckoo Song is one of those books that, when I closed the back cover at the end, I set down on my end table and thought, “Yeah, that’s what an award-winning book should feel like.”

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