Book Review: Fly Trap, by Frances Hardinge

My one-sentence description of this book pretty much sums it up: What if instead of walking away from Omelas, you burn the whole city down? But you want more than that, so I’ll pony up. Fly Trap (published as Twilight Robbery in the UK, which is a much cooler name) follows heroine Mosca Mye as she narrowly evades all sorts of horrible things, only to find herself landing in the city of Toll as part of a complicated con scheme. What they discover about Toll is that all is definitely not right with the town that turns sunny, glossy, and beautiful by day…and twists into something deeply sinister by night.

This book is actually the second in a series, but you won’t feel out of your depths picking it up without reading the first book — and I can assure you of this, because I read Fly Trap first. Mosca and her companion Eponymous Clent are richly described and fully realised here, and I didn’t feel like I was constantly missing something or operating two steps behind, as is often the case with books that follow in a series. Instead, I felt plunged headlong into an adventure.

Toll is a city where everyone’s fate is determined by when they were born, and thus, which minor gods influence their lives. This is a society where everyone’s names are based on the time of their birth, and Toll has labeled some names dark and others light. Mosca has only three days as a visitor on the light side to either pay a toll or be forced into the night, while Eponymous has a sufficiently bright and lucky name to be left on the light side. This bizarre and arbitrary separation of people proves to be both critical and devastating at various points in the book — imagine, for example, being forced to give up a newborn because she was born at an inauspicious hour and you’re a resident of the day.

Superstitions swirl in Fly Trap, in a world where people are convinced that everything that happens to them and their towns is highly dependent on luck and the will of gods. Individuals don’t take responsibility for their own roles in society, and seem in fact happy to roll over for powerful forces at work in the business of gobbling up resources, towns, and people. Mosca, however, doesn’t sit well with this, and while she may be small, she’s feisty and determined, untainted by the air of complacency that hangs over Toll and so many of its residents.

Fly Trap has been compared to ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,’ a superb short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend tracking down a copy — it’s a very quick read, and it’s one of my favourite works of short fiction. In ‘Omelas,’ a city enjoys immense good fortune and happiness, but it comes at a bitter cost: the city’s luck is paid for in the form of a child locked away in darkness without love, affection, or attention. As people grow up in Omelas, they’re shown the child so they know what price is paid for the city’s fortunes, and most choose to stay in the city, enjoying all the delights it has to offer (many of which are oh-so-very 70s).

Others, though, walk away. They can’t stomach the idea of enjoying happiness and good fortune at the expense of an innocent child, and they can’t comprehend how torturing someone in such a manner is ever justified. Their horror is such that they can’t settle with the idea of continuing to live in Omelas.

Obviously, there are a great deal of fascinating themes here and you can pick apart ‘Omelas’ every which way but Sunday to examine them, but there’s a core question that’s left unanswered: what is, instead of walking away from Omelas, someone did something? That’s essentially the question that gets tackled in Fly Trap, where Mosca, confronted with Toll’s ‘luck’ and finding out that he’s a young man who’s been kept in an isolated tower for his whole life, decides to rescue him. Her decision plunges her into conflict with those who live during the day in Toll as well as those who rule the night, and along the way, she basically launches an international incident.

As one does.

What I love about Fly Trap (and I love this book) is that it confronts the belief that it’s okay and acceptable to do nothing in the face of suffering and torment. I also love the illustration of what can happen when a people are mobilised by someone doing the right thing — this is a world where living any other way hasn’t really been considered, but Mosca changes that when she rides in and sees something she doesn’t like. Mosca doesn’t just work the city for all its got and then skip town: she’s determined to change the way things are done in Toll, she sets out to do it, and she accomplishes it.

It’s a great book for readers of all ages, a reminder that you don’t have to respond to despair with more despair, and that in the face of terrible things, sometimes you have to be willing to fight for what’s right. While you might encounter opposition, you also never know which friends and allies might crawl out of the woodwork to help the cause.