If Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver is Science Fiction.....Frances Hardinge, Fly By Night (London: MacMillan, 2005)
I won't be using Fly By Night in my book because I'm deliberately using quite a rigid definition of sf, but this is one of those borderline books which can be read as either fantasy or as alternate world.
There has been a civil war. The King has been executed and his son went into exile, but in this world the son dies (of an infected camel bite) and the number of possible heirs multiplies geometrically. The Kingdom fractures into many loyalties and Parliament controls only the centre. But when it comes to open war, the Guilds, grown strong in the power vaccum, steo in and say "if you go to war, there will be no guns, no paper, no locks, no food etc".
The book opens in the middle of this standoff. The local "heirs" are becoming less important. Increasingly there are loyalists to different Monarchs spread throughout the kingdom and loyalties are expressed in toasts and beastfights. The Guilds however are struggling for power: the Stationers control the written word, and the Locksmiths control crime. Both are wary of a outbreak of the Birdcatchers, a monotheistic group who fifteen years before tried to destroy the country's paganism.
Into this comes Mosca, an orphan girl born on Palpittatle's day, and named for one of the insects of which he is the God. Mosca is also the daugter of Quillam Mye, once a Stationer, lately a heretic. Mosca is fascinated by words and arrives in Mandelion in the company of Epyonymous Clent a con artist and spye for the Stationers having also made a contact with Lady Tamarind, the sister of the mad duke. Oh, and with a goose under her arm.
There are adventures, there are dangers, and sometimes there are rather heavy handed explanations of people's pasts, but what makes this book such a wonderful, brilliant, compulsive read is the careful exposure of civil war politics, and the realisation that there might not actually be a right side.
Just one quotation to show the degree to which Hardinge is operating head and shoulders above so many other writers of fantasy for children. Kohlrabi, a spy, has just tried to convince Mosca to become a Birdcatcher.
Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.
'No, it isn't!' shouted Mosca the Housefly, Quillam Mye's daughter. 'Not if what you're belivin' isn't blinkin' well True! You shouldn't just go beliving' things for no reason, pertickly if you've got a sword in your hand! Sacred just means something your're not meant to think about properly, an' you should never stop thinking! Show me something I can kick, and hit with rocks , and set fire to, and leave out in the rain, and think about, and if it's still standing after all that then maybe, just maybe, I'll start to believe in it, but not till then. An if all we're left with is muck and wikedness and no gods, then we'd better get used to it because it's better than a lie. (413)
There is no destinarianism in this novel. Mosca does not ascend great heights, but she does show the talents of her father: a sharp ear and a fierce intellect. Her father challenged the old order, Mosca seems about to invent materialism. I look in vain for this quality of writing in most of the sf novels for this age group yet Hardinge seems to pull it off effortlessly.
Fly By Night is a fantasy of wit and wisdom.