Since the burning of her father's books, Mosca had been starved of words. She had subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavourless as potatoes. Clent had brought phrases as vivid and strange as spices, and he smiled as he spoke, as if tasting them. (p. 13)
Read on B's recommendation: this novel, in 22 chapters ('A is for Arson' through to 'V is for Verdict', via an abecediary of criminal and legal terms), tells the story of orphan Mosca Mye's flight from the soggy village of Chough where she grew up, in the company of conman Eponymous Clent and Mosca's fearsome goose, Saracen. They travel to the city of Mandelion, and proceed to become involved in a tortuous maze of murder, beast-fights, illegal printing-presses, mad aristocrats, marriage-houses, floating coffee-shops and espionage.
The country is recovering from civil war of a religious flavour: most people still say their prayers to one or more of the Beloved, small gods in charge of specifics. But one day, according to legend, a glowing heart had appeared in the chest of every Beloved shrine and beaten three times. From that day all the little religions became one ... (p. 41) The priests of the Heart are known as Birdcatchers, and feared for their destruction -- their literal demonisation -- of the Beloved. Finally the populace rose against the Birdcatchers. Now the conflict is between the Stationers (the only organisation licensed to print) and the Locksmiths. As Mosca unravels the schemes and plots that weave through the city, she discovers unexpected facts about her dead father.
Mosca's a complex and likeable character: twelve years old, but doesn't think of herself as, or behave like, a child. Nor does she regard herself as inferior because of age or gender. She's fearsomely independent but her weakness is words: I'd been hoarding words for years, buying them from pedlars and secretly carving them onto bits of bark so I wouldn't forget them, and then he turned up using words like 'epiphany' and 'amaranth'. (p. 260)
The secondary characters are rounded and interesting: the Cakes, a young lady responsible for catering at the marriage-house where Clent and Mosca lodge; Miss Kitely, firm and sensible coffee-shop proprietor; Captain Blythe, the highwayman ...
The star of the book is language, words, the power of words to make people think (and to stop them thinking), all tied up with Mosca's logophilia. I suspect younger readers will struggle with some of the vocabulary herein: there were a couple of words I had to look up. But Hardinge's prose sings, and I'd love to hear it read aloud:
A mighty heave on a lever, and the machine stressed and pressed the paper down on to the type. Mosca could almost feel the flexing of the metal, forcing words into the world. (p. 117)
I like this book very much for a number of reasons: the language is glorious, the setting strongly reminiscent of Restoration London (Hardinge acknowledges a debt to Maureen Waller's marvellous 1700: Scenes from London Life), and though there's no overt explicit magic, this reads like a fantasy. There's some fairly serious discussion of religion, atheism and free thought: it is also extremely funny.
This novel doesn't have a sequel, which is a shame: like Mosca at the end, I don't want a happy ending. I want more story. (p. 435) Definitely looking out for Hardinge's other novels, though.