Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is a spooky supernatural mystery set during the English Civil War [Review]

Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is a spooky supernatural mystery set during the English Civil War [Review]

The illegitimate daughter of an English aristocrat has a supernatural ability that others want for their own ends

A Skinful of Shadows
By Frances Hardinge
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 978 1 5098 3754 0

Over her past few novels, Frances Hardinge has slowly established herself as a name in the ever-shifting world of young adult fiction. She is a coolly imaginative writer with a distinctive voice, and a new Hardinge novel is now very much an event for young adult readers in the know, and an exciting prospect for anyone who hasn’t read her before.

Hardinge’s last novel, The Lie Tree, was only the second YA title after Philip Pullman’s classic The Amber Spyglass, to ever win the prestigious Costa Book of the Year Award.

A Skinful of Shadows is a solid spooky mystery set during the English Civil War (1642-51), a series of bitter conflicts when the parliament tried to get rid of the monarchy. It’s a rich background for any novel, but Hardinge never lets the history swamp the gripping and highly original story she has to tell.

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Makepeace Lightfoot is the illegitimate daughter of an English aristocrat, whose family hides a terrible secret. When we first meet her, she knows nothing of her heritage. She and her mother live in a poor village. Makepeace has started to suffer from terrible nightmares; to “cure” her, her mother locks her up in a deserted chapel so she can fight the spirits trying to enter her mind.

When her mother dies, Makepeace is claimed by the rich Fellmotte family who drag her off to their ancestral home, Grizehayes.

Makepeace has inherited the supernatural gift that some of the family members possess: the capacity to be possessed by ghosts. Over the centuries, the Fellmottes have learned how to use this terrible gift to give them wealth and power. But not all of them inherit it, Makepeace must be trained so she can serve the family’s needs.

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When Makepeace realises what is happening to her, she plans to escape and get help to destroy her relatives. But how does a young girl fight the powers, both real and supernatural, that give this ancient family the influence they enjoy?

A Skinful of Shadows is a terrific read. Hardinge’s characterisation and plot are original and rock-solid, and her writing is, as ever, finely crafted and unique; she loves language and the pictures it can paint.

The whole package is a gripping mystery, ghost story, coming-of-age tale and supernatural intrigue. There is a lot going on here. There aren’t many modern writers who can craft and control brilliantly edgy novels like this.

Even the title gives you a little shiver. This is a novel to be savoured by mature teen readers.

Frances Hardinge will be here for the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival. Visit their website for more details. 

John Millen can be contacted on

Edited by Karly Cox

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Award-winning YA author weaves a magical tale of ghosts and family


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