Triss wakes up after an accident which resulted in her being pulled half-drowned from a river near the cottage where she is staying with her parents and her younger sister Pen. But something isn’t right, Triss has changed in ways she doesn’t understand, and she needs to travel to some dark places to find out what’s going on and, more importantly perhaps, who she is.
Why did I want to read it?
I’ve had Cuckoo Song on my eTBR for a while but it was only when it was nominated for the first James Herbert award that I pulled it forward to read. I was intrigued about what could be in an ostensibly children’s book that got it onto that nominee list.
What did I think of it?
This is definitely a slow burner of a read, but incredibly atmospheric and once the world that Triss finds herself in has been established the plot really kicks off and builds to a very satisfying climax. Without being too spoilery, it’s clear from very early on that our Triss isn’t the real Triss but some form of changeling, and the question is how and why that has happened and to what ultimate purpose. So we get into some complicated family dynamics, parents who have become overprotective of their children because of the death of their only son in WWI, resentment between siblings, frustration at being hemmed in and the bargains people will make to get what they think they want without any real thought for the consequences.
It’s set in a version on 1920s England that has a steampunk aesthetic (at least that’s how I thought of it) but also a sense of there being another world of strange creatures sitting just to the side of the real world that our characters inhabit. There’s cruelty and kindness of all kinds, but the main impetus of the story is not-Triss trying to establish some form of identity for herself while trying to put right the things that have been done with her as an unwitting participant. And it has a really cool bad guy.
It took a little while for me to get into the story, and I actually set it aside for a bit until I was in the right frame of mind for this dark and unsettling fairy tale, but I’m glad I went back to it because it is a really well-written and effective story with some genuine horror at its heart.
I am counting this towards both Once Upon a Time IX (for the fairy tale and fantasy elements though it wasn’t on my planned reading list), and 2015 Horror Reading Challenge (because of the James Herbert nomination).
I have at least two more (possibly three) of Hardinge’s books and I will be sure to read them given how much I came to like Cuckoo Song.