Frances Hardinge has been on my radar for quite a while, with what seems a never ending stream of highly regarded fantasy novels for young adult or middle grade audiences. But my reading has slanted more and more toward new releases lately, so naturally it was seeing several glowing reviews of her most recent work—Unraveller—that saw me finally take the plunge. And I am very glad I did.
Unraveller takes place in a land bordered by an uncanny, enchanted forest, full of magical creatures and Fae-like bargains. Prolonged proximity can cause debilitating lapses in memory, and proximity with a heart full of hatred may lead to giant spiders bestowing an ability to curse. The novel is primarily told from the perspective of two teenagers. Kellen has the rare ability to unravel curses, tracking them back to the inciting incident and changing the conditions upon which the curse rested. And Nettle was one of his earliest success stories, though she still can’t shake the nightmares of her imprisonment in the body of a bird. But when a clandestine government agent tells of cursers escaping captivity and finding safe haven somewhere in the forest, Kellen must unravel their trail before he finds himself the victim of one of the cursers he’d once thwarted.
Unraveller is a strikingly thematic book, but twined so expertly into the plot that it never feels the story exists only in service of theme. On the contrary, it’s the story that demands the theme. Perhaps the demand itself isn’t unusual, but it is so often unheeded, and Unraveller refuses to cut corners. With the magic behind curses requiring hatred, every single perpetrator has found themself in a state of passion against the person they curse. Sometimes, that’s a response to legitimate injustice. Sometimes, it’s a product of thwarted entitlement. In his work as something of a magical investigator, Kellen doesn’t have to concern himself with the difference—he finds the curser and turns them over to the authorities, sometimes even before they’ve actually enacted the curse. Similarly, he doesn’t concern himself with the victims’ long roads to recovery. But as a victim herself, Nettle cannot avoid it.
And in unravelling the path to a whole curser community, Kellen finds himself equally unable to avoid it. We see through Nettle’s eyes the impossibility of simply moving on with life after trauma, and we see both reckoning with the fact that casting a curse is not simply the product of evil character. And so themes of guilt, injustice, revenge, trauma, and recovery are an integral part of the story, and through the persons of Kellen and Nettle, they are beautifully explored.
But the beauty is not limited just to thematic exploration. The prose is a joy to read—simple enough for a young adult audience without losing an ounce of vivacity—and the worldbuilding is delightfully uncanny. The plot can tend towards breakneck racing from danger to danger, losing a little bit of the overarching narrative shape, but the thematic consistency helps to prevent things from going too far off the rails, and there are enough individual unravellings to provide compelling intermediate arcs. Every investigation is fascinating, with deep thematic resonance and skillfully executed miniature whodunnits keeping the reader guessing. And if the monster encounters didn’t grab me quite so much, they certainly weren’t enough to keep this from being one of my favorite books of the young year.
Recommended if you like: YA fantasy (sans romance), uncanny forests, themes of trauma and recovery.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Young Adult, Title with a Title, Queernorm Setting, Mythic Beasts, and Coastal Setting.
Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.