Recommended for ages 12+
Taking place in the post-World War I English countryside, Triss wakes up after an accident, her mother fawning over her and her father concerned about someone being responsible for it. Her younger sister, Pen, is afraid of her, shrieking that she’s “a fake”. Triss’ hunger is out of control; she can’t stop eating, and she can’t seem to be satisfied. She’s very afraid – this feels like something beyond her usual frailness and sickliness. Pen, meanwhile, is convinced that Triss is not who she claims to be – what does Pen know? The answers will lead the two sisters on a dark adventure that peels away the layers surrounding their lives, and brings unsettling answers to questions about their brother, who died in the War, and his fiancée, who can’t stay in one place, thanks to a secret of her own.
Cuckoo Song is one of those books that slowly builds – you start with a ping at the back of your neck, and gradually, your chest is tight, and the hairs on your arms are standing at full attention. There are horrible bargains struck, and the consequences will make readers wince and break their hearts. As a parent, reading this, I ached over the desperation of a parent who just wants to hear his or her child one more time. Thinking about this from a middle schooler’s point of view, this is skin-crawling: parents who don’t know how to parent, so lost in their despair over loss; not knowing who – or what – you are, and having your younger sibling keeping secrets that directly involve you; a never-ending hunger that horrifies you, once you realize what sates it. There are so many parallels to adolescence here, and that’s what will connect with readers.
Frances Hardinge writes beautiful dark fantasy. This was my first book by her, but I can see it won’t be my last. She knows how to weave a multilayered narrative that draws vivid pictures in the reader’s mind and even transcend the page – I felt cold, damp, and chilled in alternate parts of the book, and I couldn’t put it down.
Give this book to your Gaiman fans, your dark fantasy fans, and anyone who wants a good novel that will leave them unsettled for a long time after.