Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Triss wakes up feeling very strange, surrounded by her worried parents and a doctor. As she starts to feel better, she struggles to recognize even family members and her own home. Everything seems strange, even herself. At night, Triss finds herself ravenously hungry and eating windfall rotting apples off of the ground outside. Her younger sister Pen is terrified of her and her parents are worried. Cutting their vacation short, the family returns home but Triss doesn’t get any better. She does start to investigate other strange things happening at their home. There’s a desk drawer filled with letters from her dead brother that seem to be written after his death. There’s Pen making calls on the phone that leave no trace with the operator. Triss follows Pen to a strange movie theater where she discovers a man called The Architect who has made a dark deal with Pen with promises to save her family. Triss has to piece together her own role in what is happening to her family and see what she can do to save them all.
Hardinge writes with such strength and beauty. Her prose is lush and exquisite even in her descriptions. She manages to tell readers about the setting with details that expose the horrors happening right below the surface, the result is unsettling, eerie and gorgeous. Here is how she describes The Grimmer, a waterway that Triss was rescued from at the beginning of the book:
With every step the Grimmer grew closer and clearer, black as perdition and narrow as a half-closed eye…Over its waters the willows drooped their long hair, bucking in the gusts as if with sobs. Against the dark surface she could make out the white waterlily buds, like small hands reaching up from beneath the surface.
Readers know immediately that they are in a horror book, one that nods towards gothic but also stands firmly in faerie land too. At the heart of the book is Triss, a sickly girl with a younger sister who despises her. She focuses mostly on her own hunger, her own desires, but as things reveal themselves so does Triss’ real character and she grows into a gutsy and selfless heroine. The transformation is less about Triss changing and more about revealing what was already within her but hidden. It’s a book of slow reveals, layers being removed, truth being exposed. And it is vicious, dangerous and treacherous to the extreme. In other words, it’s a dazzling dark read.
Wild, terrible and hauntingly beautiful, this children’s fantasy novel is a delight thanks to its dark heart and strikingly unique heroine. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.