Review: Fly Trap

“It’s time the pebble kicked back.”

Frances Hardinge

Hard on the heels of the lovely Fly By Night, which I reviewed on Friday, comes its sequel, Fly Trap (I much prefer the UK title, Twilight Robbery). A few months after their escapades in the rebel city of Mandelion, Mosca, Eponymous and Saracen have swindled their way into Toll, a town guarding the only bridge across a gorge separating the cold moorlands where Mandelion lies from the rich plains beyond. Toll’s well-to-do surface conceals a disturbing truth: at night, it becomes a completely different town, a town of cut-throats and thieves and murderers.

In Hardinge’s world, each hour of the day is sacred to one of the Beloved, petty gods with names like Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jam and Butter Churns. And every child is named after the Beloved in whose hour they are born – so Our Heroine is called Mosca (“fly”) because she was born in the hour sacred to Palpitattle. In Toll, the Beloved have been divided into two lists: respectable and not respectable. Those who are named for respectable Beloved – “day-names” – are allowed to stay in the daylight town; those who are not pass into Toll-by-Night if after three days they haven’t raised the toll to leave the town. Few who go into Toll-by-Night ever raise enough money to get out again, taxed as they are almost to starvation; they are doomed to spend the rest of their lives in darkness.

I argued on Friday that Fly By Night is a novel which sort of explodes the role of the parasite wordsmiths in Ben Jonson’s 16th-century city plays, opening up their anarchic potential, giving them real and sympathetic agency instead of exhibiting their brilliance only to contain it. I think Fly Trap takes this a step further, looking at how names in these plays condition both how their audiences respond to the characters and how the characters define themselves.

Let’s think about the names of those Jonsonian parasites. We have, of course, Volpone’s Mosca, Our Heroine’s real-world namesake; we have Subtle, the titular Alchemist in Jonson’s most famous play; we have Brainworm, of Every Man in His Humour. We’re told what to think of each of these characters from the moment the play begins. Mosca is a fly, a feeder on rotten meat: his frantic dartings may fascinate us, but they’re also supposed to disgust us. Subtlety may be an interesting quality, but it’s hardly a sympathetic one. Brainworm may be bright, but he’s also a worm, a lowly servant. Our reception of these characters will always be conditioned by the names Jonson has given them.

Hardinge applies the same logic to her divided town. Much is made in the book of the resentment the inhabitants of Toll-by-Night bear towards those of Toll-by-Day, a resentment which sees the nightfolk turn into exactly the kind of people the dayfolk think they are: murderers, rebels, thieves, locked safely away in the night. That is, the act of naming a person literally creates their nature, not the other way around. When upper-class male writers like Jonson give the underlings and the rising poor derogatory names, they’re creating what it is they fear, oppressing and containing the potential for good the poor may have in a destructive cycle of poverty and petty meanness.

Interesting as this rewriting may be, its execution is a little less subtle, and a little more strident, than it was in Fly By Night. Be that as it may, Fly Trap is still an important piece of MG, joyous in its celebration of language, a well-told and well-thought story with a heart.

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