Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Review: Unraveller, by Frances Hardinge

Undoing the curse is only the start.

If you have ever stood by, quietly seething, swallowing down a boiling fury that cannot find an outlet because you are too powerless to express it, then this book will strike you with a deep resonance. It is, fundamentally, a ‘what-if’ for those people who have writhed in the grip of impotent anger: What if you had the power to express it, to defy social strictures, to channel your rage into an outlet that would make them pay

In the country of Raddith, which lives in an uneasy equilibrium with the creatures of the Wilds next door, the furious, wronged, indignant, or malevolent among us are granted that outlet. The gift comes from spiderlike creatures from the Wilds, known as Little Brothers because an affectionate, friendly name blunts—however ineffectively—people's fear of their terrible power. Little Brothers find people nursing a deep sense of wrong, and grant them a curse egg, which grows and matures inside the wronged, nurtured by their hurt and indignation, until they let fly, turning the target of their anger to stone, mist, a fishhook, a bat, a sentient harp, a murderous monster who must be cast out and ostracized from all she ever knew and loved. The shape each curse takes is dictated by the nature of the wrong that was committed, because a punishment is all the more satisfying when it fits.

Naturally, a nation plagued by cursers and cursed must develop an infrastructure to handle this. Institutions are constructed to lock up cursers—or indeed, potential cursers, because the best way to prevent a curse is to find the carrier of a curse egg and lock them up before they’ve hurt anyone. After all,

There were telltale signs of a potential curser, if you knew what to look for, so they could be identified. Some showed flashes of uncontainable rage or saw things other people couldn’t. No, it wasn’t fair to lock up an innocent person, but what else could you do? It would be like saying you couldn’t take an arrow from a drawn bow because it hadn’t hurt anyone yet.

Because, you see, everyone knows that if you have a curse egg, you will use it. And if you’ve had one, you will probably get another, because everyone knows that a curser will always curse again. Always. Everyone knows this.

Kellen, a teenage boy cast out from his family of weavers due to his uncanny ability to unravel any woven thing merely by getting too close, also possesses the ability to unravel curses. Together with Nettle, a girl who’d been cursed into a heron until he’d intervened, he travels Raddith, taking commissions from people who want their loved ones released from their curses. 

Unravelling curses is not a simple matter. The first stage of every investigation requires Kellen and Nettle to learn everything about the nature of the curse—who cast it, to be sure, but also why. Which means every investigation must begin with the question, ‘what did you do to deserve this?’ In this world, victims must be blamed, not because they are necessarily culpable (although, to be sure, many are a right piece of work), but because the nature of how curses work requires that the curser feel wronged and hard done by. The work is as much psychology as it is magic.

These psychological causes and consequences of cursing form the real strength of this book. The writing is equally sympathetic to both curser and cursed. Yes, if you’ve spent thirty years as a terrifying monster in the wilderness, luring people with your siren voice to a swamp where you drown them and eat them, you are not okay when the curse is unravelled and you must face what you’ve done as a human. But, similarly, if you’ve been wronged so deeply (or feel that you’ve been wronged so deeply) that you are willing to turn someone into a terrifying swamp monster, you’re equally not okay. Hardinge allows the cursers to speak their bit with their own voices, never losing sight of the harm that they’ve done, but also not glossing over the harm that was done to them that spawned their curse egg in the first place.

Throughout the book, we repeatedly run into the message that you must treat the harm—whether the original wrong that was done, or the aftermath of the unravelled curse—with as much care as you treat the technical unravelling of the magic itself. Kellen’s real skill lies in unravelling the curses, not ministering to the mental health of the uncursed and curser alike, but just because you’re not good at something doesn’t mean you get a free pass to neglect it. 

It’s a dark and difficult message. Indeed, many of Hardinge’s books have quite a grim undertone to them. Although her books are nominally YA, she does not give her young main characters the naivety or impetuousness that so frequently characterizes teenage protagonists of YA books. Kellen and Nettle are persistently distrusting of adults, and their distrust is usually well-founded. It makes for cynical story, but satisfying reading: A too-trusting character who gets duped is just frustrating, and that never happens in Hardinge’s books. Characters must earn Kellen and Nettle’s trust. At the same time, though, their perpetual caution and second-guessing of every decision regarding whom to trust becomes exhausting. Yet that exhaustion, that dilemma, is the very heart of the difficulty of their task, because trust is a key component in treating mental health. And as they learn at the end, the path forward is going to require a substantial amount of that. 

The world-building of this tale supports the story beautifully, starting with one of the finest prologues I’ve ever encountered. The Wilds, which constitute the source of everything dark and magical about the world, are shrouded in a veil of uninterestingness. People’s minds slide right past them; views of them from the sea make them look like a pathetic scrubby bit of nothing, hardly worth the trouble to think about, let alone explore. Yet within them are all sorts of magical beings: the spidery Little Brothers who grant curse eggs; the carnivorous marsh-horses who form bonds with humans at the cost of an eye and—effectively—a life; the Dancing Star, who detaches its hands to form a cage that traps and eat souls; the Bookbearers, who oversee and enforce all agreements, whether or not the speaker realizes that they’re entering into it at the time. (Magically enforced bargains that operate by rigid adherence to the wording, rather than good faith respect for the intention, are my favorite kind of bargain.)

It is a wonderful instantiation of the wild and weird kind of magical realm, filled not with the twee twinkling Tinkerbell fairies, but the magical Other, akin to Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, to Clarke’s Raven King and Faerie kingdom. It is a realm whose blue and orange morality is so far askew from human dimensions that people who live on the borders of the Wilds shut their doors at night and don’t let anyone in; while people who live within the Wilds themselves welcome everyone to their homes without question, because they vulnerable to terrifying punishment if they give the slightest offense to any of the inhabitants. Indeed, so satisfying is this kind of magic that it is rather disappointing when some of the Wilds creatures turn out to operate according to human standards of kindness. It is, to be sure, a relief to Kellen and Nettle, who have received precious little of it in their wanderings, but it felt unearned here, where kindness, and trust, and goodness, are granted grudgingly, if at all. 

But then, that trust in kindness must be granted if the curses are not just to be unravelled, but fully healed.


Nerd coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention

  • An understanding of mental health, without getting bogged down in a Trauma Plot
  • Weird and wild magical creatures
  • Appropriately suspicious youngsters

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at

Reference: Unraveller. Frances Hardinge. [Macmillan Children's Books, 2022].