It feels wrong to play favourites, but of all the many skills Frances Hardinge displays in each of her novels, world-building ranks very high indeed in this reviewer’s list. From underground cities to gods-infested islands, Hardinge’s settings always come with wonderful depth and detail, making them much more than just a background to a character’s progression.
In Unraveller, place is a protagonist in its own right. The elusive Wilds hide their numerous dangers under a glamour of blandness that makes them hard to think about and impossible to map. Filled with wonderful creatures and eerie landscapes, they quietly impose their own law on the whole country of Raddith, and, as a result, on our heroes Kellen and Nettle’s lives. The teenagers both know first-hand about the dark magic that brews there: Kellen as a remover of curses (an ‘unraveller’) and Nettle as the former victim of one of them.
These two form an intriguing and refreshing duo, going around the tamer parts of Raddith undoing the consequences of deep hatred, but never stopping long enough to see what happens next to the ‘rescued’, until circumstances force them to do so. Reading at times like detective fiction, at others like a quest narrative, the narrative is action-packed and full to the brim with complex characters, interesting customs, and fun set-pieces.
Unraveller is an absolute page-turner that will demand many repeat visits to fully absorb its truths, its complexities, and its beauty.