Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song

August 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Her head hurt.  There was a sound grating against her mind, a music-less rasp like the rustling of paper.  Somebody had taken a laugh, crumpled it into a great, crackly ball and stuffed her skull with it.  Seven days, it laughed.  Seven days. 

‘Stop it,’ she croaked.  And it did.  The sound faded away, until even the words she thought she had heard vanished from her mind like breath from glass.

‘Triss?’  There was another voice that sounded much louder and closer than her own, a woman’s voice.  ‘Oh, Triss, love, love, it’s all right, I’m here.’  Something was happening.  Two warm hands had closed around hers, as if they were a nest for it.

‘Don’t let them laugh at me,’ she whispered.  She swallowed, and found her throat dry and crackly as bracken. (Ch. 1, introductory paragraphs, Kindle e-edition)

The cuckoo bird is famous (infamous?) for its ability to mimic the appearance and sound of dozens of other birds in order to lay its eggs in a “host’s” nest.  In certain Eurasian legends, it has served to represent the myth of the changeling, of a replaced body that mimics the voice and actions of an original child, but with subtle differences that serve to warn others that this is a nefarious replacement.  For centuries, changeling tales have appeared in various European folk tales, usually representing a hidden monster or a looming disaster.

Frances Hardinge’s latest YA novel, Cuckoo Song, is a mystery tale that appropriates several of the motifs associated with these cuckoo/changeling tales to create a quasi-historical story that is fascinating.  The story begins with young eleven-year-old Triss waking up one day after being unconscious for a week, feeling strangely out of sorts,  As she tries to come to terms with what has unfolded in her family in post-World War I England, a series of nefarious actions take place, some of which surround a mysterious doll that seems to speak to Triss.  As she begins to question what is going on, not to mention wondering why she is oh so hungry all the time, a series of revelations occur that shed light on these mysteries.  It seems there are more monsters out there than what might presume.

The Cuckoo Song depends heavily on its plot structure to carry the story.  Triss begins the story ignorant of her past and as she fills in the gaps in her memory, pieces of the central mystery are set in place.  Hardinge does a good job in doling out information, as there are few apparent infodumps over the course of this story.  Related to this balanced plot pace is the development of Hardinge’s characters.  Triss and her family members are fleshed out nicely over the course of this 416 page novel, with their development tied directly to new information discovered.  While at times the mysterious element was overplayed, at least in that character development was too closely tied to corresponding plot developments and not allowed to develop organically, on the whole these characters are dynamic enough that it is easy to overlook this minor flaw.

Enjoyable as the plot was, if there was a major flaw in Cuckoo Song, it might be that the plot progressions are too pat and predictable.  There were times that I skimmed through chapters, sensing that the information provided within could have been pared down some while still maintaining a nice plot-centered origins mystery.  Yet while this high degree of predictability may have dampered my own enjoyment slightly, for others more able to keep their focus on the current developments instead of trying to anticipate each upcoming major development, the story, prose, characterization, etc. will likely prove to be intriguing enough to make Cuckoo Song a very enjoyable reading experience.

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