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.