A Skinful of Shadows

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 13 Sep 2018

Member Reviews

At this point, and after reading this book, Verdigris Deep, A Face Like Glass and Cuckoo Song, I can safely say that Frances is  a genius, a prodigy, a master storyteller, has an incredibly creative brain and is overall brilliant. I don't think Frances Hardinge can do any wrong, she really is PERFECT. A 5 star rating is not enough.
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I've yet to find a Frances Hardinge book I did not enjoy. She's really a masterful writer. This one was creepy, upsetting, thoughtful, and uplifting.
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A decent middle-grade selection with an interesting concept and well-drawn characters. The paranormal side didn't have quite enough teeth to really petrify, but readers will enjoy learning the reasons behind Makepeace's hauntings and cheer for her to overcome her difficulties. Eerie enough to be fun. Already purchased for library collection.
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I did not realize this was only a sample when I requested it and I am a little disappointed about that because I enjoyed what I have read so far. Makepeace's story is full of pain and betrayal and new beginnings, as well as the constant fight against ghosts who want to possess her. 

In the beginning, Makepeace's mother is very cruel and strict, going so far as to lock her in a graveyard to 'sharpen her stick' (in other words, build up her defenses). She never smiled or laughed or showed affection for Mackepeace so it came as no surprise when Makepeace finally started rebelling. I do not agree with how her mother treated her, but I can also understand why she thought what she was doing was right.

Fast forward a few chapters and now Makepeace has a new place to live and is surrounded by strangers. With no one on he side, except for maybe her secret companion, I am curious to find out what she will do.

The writing flows well and I read through it pretty quickly. It was engaging and descriptive, a bit spooky and perfect for this month!

This was a very interesting sample and I plan to buy the book to continue!
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I would call A Skinful of Shadows a mix between horror and fantasy.  The horror is obvious; the premise of the book involves spirits invading the bodies of the living.  However, Makepeace does not view her ability to host the spirits of others within her own body as only a thing of terror.  She is frightened by the prospect of her own mind being crushed by the spirits of the dead, but she is also willing to share the space inside herself with those for whom she finds compassion.  I liked that her ability was not portrayed as inherently beneficial or harmful, but as a potentially useful, yet dangerous tool. In this way, the supernatural elements feel more like the magic system of a dark fantasy, and this shifts the whole story closer to my interests.

 The heart of the story is the coming-of-age of the heroine, who bears the unusual puritan name of Makepeace. She is a young adolescent girl that does not have the support or guidance of anyone with her best interests at heart. There is a lot about the world around her that she does not understand, and every day she must struggle to find a place within it that doesn’t result in her death, or worse. Even so, she meets the difficulties she encounters with determination, intelligence, resourcefulness, and a solid sense of self-worth.  I thought she was an excellent heroine, and there is a lot in her character that younger readers could admire.

 The book starts just before the English civil war (~1640s, I think), which is not a period of English history with which I’m particularly well-versed.  I didn’t feel like my lack of familiarity with the history was a barrier to understanding the story, especially since this seems to be a primarily fictional take on the period. It seems to have been a confusing and chaotic time, and I liked that the narrative primarily focused on the common people caught in the chaos rather than the politics of aristocrats.  Makepeace has no reason to favor one side of the civil war over the other, though she does get caught up in events from time to time. There is also a strong sense of place and atmosphere, so younger readers who are interested in historical fantasy would likely find a lot here to enjoy.  

In Summary:

Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is an entertaining YA horror/fantasy set in mid-1600s England. The story involves an aristocratic family who has the hereditary ability to harbor spirits of the dead within their bodies, and I appreciated that it considers both the harm and good that can come from such an ability. I liked the strong sense of the place and time, and I liked the mental strength and determination of the heroine, Makepeace.  As an adult, my perspective may not be that of the target audience, but I can say that I enjoyed this novel very much.
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I made extensive notes as I read A Skinful of Shadows, but most of them I cannot use without spoiling something, which I don’t want to do. This is a very odd book. It’s set in an alternate English Civil War with a narrator who is a little girl and grows to a young woman through the course of the story. I only remember one large time gap, though, as the progression is otherwise tied smoothly into historical events.

What’s so special about Makepeace? Well, beyond her father’s inheritance (the alt-world aspect), nothing much. She’s an unwanted, poor relative turned kitchen girl who has a huge flaw. Makepeace fails to appreciate what she’s been given, doesn’t know her place, and has the audacity to think for herself.

With that description, you might be expecting a powerful, commanding presence who stands out in a crowd.

Instead, Makepeace is a tortured, ignorant girl who doesn’t understand the stakes until she’s imprisoned and beaten at someone else’s whim. She stays quiet, keeps her head down, and doesn’t let on what’s spinning in her mind as she dissects plan after plan to escape the unpleasant future laid out for her.

It’s an odd choice for a narrator. While the narrative voice, especially in the beginning, is a little more knowing, we see most through Makepeace’s eyes. Her lack of understanding creates a disconnect when the clues are visible to the reader but she doesn’t recognize them. She’s often alone, but that doesn’t mean her perspective is one-sided or that she’s isolated. There are things to be experienced at the right time that make this story and Makepeace compelling.

Don’t think Makepeace stays ignorant, though. She’s canny and suspicious. She’s able to translate her experiences into a broader sense of economy and class differences. Makepeace is wise with the kind of wisdom drawn from brutal experience. She has built a sense of right from wrong drawn not from any one position but from the spaces where those positions meet. Having been beneath the feet of wealthy and poor alike, she has no illusions about either. Her portrayal shows the kindness and abuse to be found in any class, along with circumstances that mark class differences.

This is a fascinating redrawing of a chaotic period in English history where one odd talent makes a power-hungry family as close to unbeatable as they can be. But Makepeace is not afraid of hardship. She has faced horrible things that made her determined to own her choices and control her destiny. This makes her unpredictable when her father’s family has built a legacy on predictability. I can’t say more without crossing the line, but the clash of worldviews is part of my fascination.

I enjoy “boots on the ground” stories, but this is not one. To fall in that category, the characters must have some stake in the conflict. Makepeace has seen both sides and learns how easy it is to be swayed by strong beliefs. She is that random piece thrown into a puzzle that fits nowhere but the hints at its picture keep drawing you back even when you know the effort is fruitless.

Makepeace is both grounded and philosophical as well as wary and trusting. She trusts by choice not because she believes herself safe from betrayal but rather because she expects it and chooses to try anyway. It’s a hard book to describe because it’s different in so many ways, but the novel drew me in and held my attention so much so I’ve already recommended it in person.

I’ll conclude with one of the non-spoilery comments from my notes: This is very much mythpunk in my opinion. The story is powerful and elemental in a way that defies the expectations of modern fantasy where rules govern. It draws on a deeper past of lore half-forgotten but which still walks in the world despite our ignorance.

P.S. I received this book as part of the 2018 Hugo packet and did not have the chance to read it until now. Though A Skinful of Shadows did not win, there is no question in my mind that it deserved its nomination.
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In her first novel since The Lie Tree (2016), Hardinge again summons history and fantasy, intermingling them in a most unusual way. Set against a backdrop of the English Civil War, the story opens in a small Puritan village, where a girl named Makepeace wrestles with vivid nightmares. When her mother is accidentally killed, the girl is sent to her father’s family, of whom she knows nothing. The Fellmottes, it turns out, are an old aristocratic clan with an insidious secret—they are able to “house” the spirits of the dead, a gift they have twisted, and the inherited cause of Makepeace’s clawing nightmares. The narrative opens slowly as Hardinge lays deliberate groundwork and conjures a palpably eerie atmosphere, which mounts in horror as the story progresses. It picks up after Makepeace, now 15, has spent two years as a kitchen girl at the Fellmotte estate, gathering information about the family. The plot becomes populated by spymistresses—whose ranks Makepeace fleetingly joins—and vengeful spirits, and is punctuated by her escape attempts and wartime battles. Yet much of the action unfolds in Makepeace’s head, as she acquires her own coterie of ghosts, most memorably that of an ill-treated bear. Hardinge’s writing is stunning, and readers will be taken hostage by its intensity, fascinating developments, and the fierce, compassionate girl leading the charge.
— Julia Smith, Booklist (Oct. 15, 2017; https://www.booklistonline.com/A-Skinful-of-Shadows-Frances-Hardinge/pid=9128397)
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Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is exactly the sort of book I would have loved as a child.  It is a fantasy novel, a gothic story of ghosts and possession and strange, creepy families in strange, creepy houses, but it is grounded very solidly in the English Civil War, and feels more like a really good historical novel with supernatural elements.

It’s going to be difficult to talk about what makes this book interesting and exciting without spoiling at least some of the book – there is a fair bit of creepy foreboding in the first third or so of the story before we learn what is really going on with the elders of the family.  For me, the book really takes off once this secret is confirmed and Makepeace starts trying to fend for herself against it.  I’ll cut this where the spoilers start.

Makepeace has a gift, or perhaps a curse – she is able to harbour the spirits of the dead, and the spirits can sense this, and they want in.  Her mother tries to teach her to defend herself, and also to protect her from her father’s powerful family, but after her mother dies, she is on her own, and her father’s family is quick to claim her.  It’s pretty clear that they are a deeply creepy group of people, but her half brother, James who is also illegitimate, befriends her, and they plan to escape together.

Her gift is a family trait, and one which has in fact shaped the family, and there is a pretty sinister reason why the elder family members make a point of collecting any illegitimate offspring who carry the trait of being able to house ghosts.  And the first half of this book is a straight gothic, really.  What is going on in the creepy house?  Who are Makepeace’s relatives, really?  Can any of them be trusted?  Did you really think the answer to that last question was going to be yes?  Of course you didn’t.

But alongside this, England is getting worked up towards the Civil War.  Makepeace’s mother’s family were Puritans, but her father’s family are Catholics and for the King.  And once the war gets going, this creates all sorts of opportunities for Makepeace and her half brother, and the story starts moving out into the world, where it is still creepy and tense, but to my mind, much more fun – perhaps because Makepeace is now doing things rather than reacting.

The setting is just fantastic, incidentally.  I love the English Civil War era, and the space it makes for spies and politics, and I love how Hardinge writes it here, with both sides harbouring men and women of courage and integrity, and both sides harbouring some pretty terrible people as well, until one has sympathy with Makepeace’s feeling that she cares neither for King nor Parliament, just for the individuals who are having to live with this war.  She wants to preserve people, not ideals.

And speaking of preserving people… here be spoilers!

My favourite thing about this book is when Makepeace, half deliberately, half by accident, begins recruiting her own set of ghostly allies.  I love the shifting alliances inside their head, and the way they use each other and fight each other and band together or betray each other in turn – family is a strong theme in this book, and in many ways, Makepeace creates a family of her own from her ghosts.

Of course, you need to bear in mind that not all families are functional…

This is a very, very good novel – the grounding in history makes it feel substantial in a way not all fantasies manage, and there is both light and dark to be found.  I like the spirits, and I like Makepeace’s character – thinking about it, she is very firmly herself from start to end, which might be why she is able to fight so well in her situation.

This is going to the top of my ballot in the YA section.  Highly recommended.
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A Skinful of Shadows is another novel nominated for this year's (Not-A-)Hugo Award for Best SciFi/Fantasy Young Adult Novel of 2017.  I hadn't heard of the book until it's nomination for the award, but it was included in full in the Hugo Packet.  That said, it's a pretty good novel, well worthy of the nomination I'd think.  In terms of how it fits as YA, A Skinful of Shadows is aimed at a slightly older age group than Summer in Orcus, but only slight - and definitely not aimed at more mature readers as other nominees such as The Art of Starving or In Other Lands (the book contains no sexual activity or even hint of the same, so it's not a book that would be inappropriate necessarily for young readers).

----------------------------------------------Plot Summary----------------------------------------------------

Makepeace grew up only knowing her mother, who lived with her in an attic of the house owned by one of their cousins.  Together they lived in 17th Century England, which is rife with unrest as supporters of Parliament and supporters of the Crown begin to be set at odds.  But Makepeace has bigger concerns - namely nightmares where spirits seem to be trying to get into her head.  And when Makepeace tells her mother about these nightmares, her mother forces her to sleep in a graveyard to learn to keep the spirits out.

But when Makepeace's mother dies when caught up in an anti-monarchist riot, Makepeace finds herself taken to the house of her father's family, the powerful and rich Fellmotte family.  But the Fellmottes are not an ordinary family of aristocrats - they, like Makepeace, possess the ability to both see and be possessed by ghosts.  And the Fellmottes do not have the best of Makepeace's interests at heart....or at least not her mind's interests, and Makepeace is not one to give up her own mind without a fight.

But in a Country torn apart by Civil War, with members of the Fellmotte family on both sides, where exactly can she turn?


I've kept the plot summary above as vague as possible - while a reader with no prior knowledge will still see some of the twists coming, I was pretty frequently surprised by where the book was going at times, in a pleasant way.  It probably helps that the book uses an uncommon plot setting for me - I admit to not having read any books I can think of set during the English Civil War.  So while I had some general idea how the setting was to play out, the uncertainty made the world very interesting to read through.

And the worldbuilding in this book is very good - the war is vivid and understandable, as Makepeace finds herself alongside characters on both sides of the conflict, the Fellmotte mansion is appropriately creepy, as are the Fellmotte's themselves, and their ghost-possessing abilities make for a fascinating story.  This is not the first book I've read involving communication between living people and ghosts as a foundation for the plot (for a very different story involving such a thing, see Mary Robinette Kowal's "Ghost Talkers"), but the book's use of people who can willing be possessed by ghosts is done in a very different way than I've seen before, and it results in an interesting plot, especially as with how it's done by both our main character and our antagonists.  In a way, this book is kind of a horror story, which is not usually my cup of tea, but the use of such possession by ghosts is very different than what I've seen before and makes it an effective story of that genre.

It helps that Makepeace is an excellent character, and several of the side characters are great as well.  Makepeace is great in her own right - a determined young teenage girl not to let others choose for her who improvises fantastically in a way to fight off the horrors that chase her.  The group that accompanies Makepeace through the second half of the book are a bit more hit or miss - the doctor Makepeace first finds to accompany her is a pretty great character - cocky and overconfident and more than a bit smarmy/selfish but trying to help at times.  And while he never actually has lines, the bear that accompanies Makepeace from near the very beginning of the book is a surprisingly interesting character in how he interacts with everyone else.  And one of the more explored antagonist Fellmotte's (not spoiling which one) is a very interesting twist upon how someone with the family power can really be evil.

Not everyone works - a religious soldier Makepeace meets up with is kind of eh, and Makepeace's best friend, her half-brother James, is kind of bland and more of a plot device.  And Makepeace's resolution to her biggest concern does come maybe a bit too easily.

Still, I liked A Skinful of Shadows a good bit, and am glad it got nominated for the award or I might have missed it.  It won't be my pick for the award, but it's well deserving of the nomination and worth your read, and it's definitely a solid book for anyone middle school and up to pick up.
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Hardinge's novels are always a delight to read. I loved Lie Tree and loved this one too. Although a tad less feminist than The Lie Tree, still a great book for teens to read to see girls CAN be their own heros, without the need of a male company.

Such a refreshing and imaginative read in this world of love-obsessed young adult fiction.
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I received this work as part of the 2018 Hugo Voter Packet. This is a story which will appeal to those who enjoy ghost stories, but who are looking for something different from the usual. I found the cultural details interesting -- the author has done extensive research -- and the main character sympathetic. However, the other characters are less fleshed-out, and the pacing is fairly slow, especially at first. Recommended for those who enjoy stories of young people who start out scared and weak and gradually learn to become strong.
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When beginning this book it was difficult to get invested as for me the story dragged and was a bit slow but by chapter 5 or so the story really gains momentum and never slows back down again! I am a huge fan of books that feature any kind of paranormal twist and this story with a young girl who can not only sense spirits but also take them in her body and "host" them truly hit the spot. The ending was the cherry on top taking me for an exciting loop!
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Disappointed in this one. The concept seemed really cool, and I'm a sucker for the mashup of historical/paranormal. Unfortunately, the overall voice just didn't do it for me and there were too many convenient plot devices & historical inaccuracies that took me out of it.
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It was pretty interesting concept but had a slow pace. A Skinful of Shadows is definitely different than a lot of the YA novels nowadays and I liked watching the character development of Makepeace.
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I was given the chance to read this book from net galley for an honest review. 
I keep thinking that Frances Hardinge is going to run out of original ideas, and she keeps blowing me away. She can take the most overworked premise and make it into something fresh and exciting. Here, it's ghosts. I really wonder what she would do with vampires. 

 There's a bit of fantasy, a bit of fairy tale, and a whole lot of mind-blowing originality and imagination. And really interesting female main characters. I loved Mosca in Fly by Night, and I loved Makepeace here. I was completely swept away on her journey as she discovered her strange skill, and the plans her elders had to use it for their own gain. And, of course, the writing is amazing..
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This young adult fantasy manages to bring in just the right amount of horror and gothic atmosphere without ever becoming too gruesome to keep reading. Makepeace is a young girl raised as a puritan just before the beginning of the English Civil War. She has always had the ability to see ghosts, and her mother both tortures and trains her to keep the ghosts out of her body and her head. When Makepeace's mother dies, Makepeace ends up letting in the ghost of a bear and is sent away to become a servant in the home of her father's relatives. There she finds out the real reasons her mother tried to train her, and as the outside world falls apart into civil war, Makepeace's only goal is to escape the horror of her family and live life on her own terms.

I enjoyed this book, though it sometimes became almost too grim. Makepeace is in a terrible situation, but she keeps pushing forward to save herself and those she cares about. Her two great qualities are her determination and her ability to see past the political, social, and religious lines that separate so many around her. She sees value in human souls and in the lives of those around her which gives her the grounding for seeing value in herself.
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I'm putting this book second on my Young Adult Not-A-Hugo ballot, which is high praise indeed; the category was very strong.

Trigger warning for the horrors of being caught up in a civil war.
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I really enjoyed the premise of this book.  The different take on possession and ghosts was well done, well supported by good world building.  I haven't read anything set during the English Civil War before, either, so the different time frame was welcome and interesting.  I look forward to reading more of Hardinge's work.
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Another Hugo ballot book, this time something from the YA list, and again something I probably wouldn't have ended up reading otherwise - that's one good thing about these kind of awards, I guess, that you might come across stuff that's outside your usual stomping grounds...

A Skinful of Shadows is set in the run-up to and early days of the Civil War, the UK one. We first meet our protagonist, Makepeace, in the sternly-Puritan environment where she is living with her mother. Life is tough, to say the least, and the threat of outright war is still in the future while Makepeace tries to deal with the way her mother is attempting to toughen her up by making her stay in the local graveyard overnight. It's not until after the death of her mother in a riot some months later and an unwanted claim being made on her by her father's family that Makepeace discovers just what ghosts have to do with her own ancestry. 

Once she has found her place in her family's home, even though that place is working in the kitchen since she's one of the former lord's illegitimate children, Makepeace discovers the truth about the family to whom she's related. The current crop of lords are literally being bred to exist as containers for the ghosts of their ancestors, with Makepeace and her half-brother James being convenient substitutes if the process doesn't work. Once she's realised just what fate awaits her, Makepeace begins to plot her escape although it takes a while for her plans to actually work out. 

A Skinful of Shadows is an interesting book and probably one I would have absolutely loved as a teenager, with a clear attention to detail in terms of the ongoing history and the lives people lived in that period. Makepeace doesn't quite work as well as a character for me and I can't quite put my finger on why that is, which is irritating, hence my rating at 3 stars rather than 4.
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I didn't realize that this was a short story when I began it. You don't get that feel as you are reading it, which leads to a disappointing ending because there is no resolution nor does anything really happen. For me, I barely understood what exactly was going on. I don't believe the author made it clear nor was there any form of backstory that actually told you why/how this particular issue was happening to this girl. 
I didn't like this book.
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