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A Skinful of Shadows

by Frances Hardinge

March 11, 2019.Beth.2 Likes.0 Comments
This book had a huge mystery that both the reader and Makepeace was unable to solve until right at the end, but ultimately only needed one conversation with one person to clear everything up.

This review contains spoilers

A Skinful of Shadows is a fantasy novel set around 1642 at the beginning of the English Civil war. Makepeace is the main character, a girl living with her mother in her Aunt and Uncle’s home but never truly belonging there. The book begins when Makepeace is twelve years old, waking up screaming from nightmares of ghosts trying to make their way inside her. Her mother, a strict, supposedly Puritan woman, tries to prepare her by leaving her alone in graveyards to strengthen her mind against the ghosts and build her guard. When her mother dies, Makepeace blames herself and the spirit of a frightened and angry bear enters her body. It is wild and strong but soon their spirits entwine and Bear becomes her only defence when she goes to live with her father’s rich and powerful family. There is a secret at Grizehayes, one that causes the family to keep their relations close and send a shiver of fear down the spine of anyone who beholds them. Makepeace spends the next three years planning an escape with James, her newly discovered older brother. A difficult task with the outside world being torn apart by war and the Fellmotte family Elders trying to tear her apart on the inside.

I was unsure how to rate this book because at different points for me it could have been 3.5 stars or up to 5 stars. I really enjoyed it, evidenced by the fact that I read it in two days, but I also found it confusing.

This story is very character driven with realistic and vivid characters throughout. I really enjoyed the protagonist Makepeace. She is prickly, blunt, clever and determined, and also changed and grew so much with the story. Makepeace began as a small and frightened girl and ending as a self-assured, competent young woman. She and Bear, the first ghost residing inside her, are completely entwined and his wildness and animal tendencies become hers. I loved the way they were portrayed, the constant care she showed for Bear and the genuine reactions that they had.

The Fellmottes were also wonderfully described and realistic, even with the supernatural element to them. They were creepy and frightening and a real threat to Makepeace. The fear surrounding them and Makepeace’s goal to get away from them was very believable. Unfortunately, I was less interested in James Fellmotte, Makepeace’s brother who she meets once at Grizehayes. He literally appeared from nowhere, climbing through a window into her room, and they instantly become best friends despite not knowing anything about each other before that moment. Their interactions are stilted and they have almost no chemistry, so all the big plot points involving James seem to fall flat. It’s hard to care about James, especially in comparison to Makepeace’s relationship with Bear or the other ghosts who we get to know faster and better, in a much shorter time.

I love books with mysteries in them that the protagonist needs to solve, but I’m less keen on books where the reader is kept in the dark as well. This book had a huge mystery that both the reader and Makepeace was unable to solve until right at the end, but ultimately only needed one conversation with one person to clear everything up. It was frustrating to not know what was happening for 80% of the book, and this made the plot a little meandering. Especially as the purpose for Makepeace’s wandering around the country seemed more to tell the story of the war then to further her own story.

The mystery also detracted from a cool premise. Being a vessel for ghosts and being able to carry them around inside you, sharing thoughts and memories is a great idea. Not knowing you can do it for half the book seems like a waste. The ghosts were some of my favourite characters as each one was very individual and their interactions with Makepeace were great. I would have loved to have read a whole book about them all.

The intermingling of Puritan England with the fantasy aspects was really interesting and not something I’ve read about before. While I enjoyed learning about the conflict between the King and Parliament, it did add to my confusion. The book already contained a fantasy concept for the reader to learn about, and adding in so much information about an unfamiliar subject created a bit of an information overload. I would have rather had the time spent on the possessions.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I loved the characters and the concept, though I think the plot could have been streamlined and different aspects focussed on more. It is a standalone which I really loved. I like trilogies, but the fact that the story could be told and wrapped up in one book felt fresh. It actually left me wanting another book set in this world, because I was satisfied by the end. Overall, a great book and I would recommend it.

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