The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree is an historical murder mystery with a hint of the supernatural at its heart. Drawing from a meticulously researched Victorian Milieu, the tone and world are authentic without a hint of a modern voice. But the pace is hobbled by a slavish attention to period detail; this is a mystery without thriller aspects and featuring a denouement that limped rather than intrigued. Admittedly, despite the beautifully writing and highly nuanced characters, I started skimming frequently.

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Story: 15 year old Faith’s family is relocated from London to the isle of Vane; her rector father has fled scandal when his archaeological finds are revealed to be false. Faith is a curious girl and as she begins to uncover her father’s secrets, a murder at the island will upset her carefully ordered world. For hidden away by her father is a tree that, if one whispers lies, will provide a fruit of hidden truths. But both the price and the reward are diabolic.

There are several themes explored in the course of the book: a rector’s loss of faith in the era of Darwin’s discoveries; the place of an intelligent girl in a repressive Victorian society; the nature of lies and truths, and a subtle struggle between classes. At the same time, various aspects of the time period provide interesting counterpoints; this is perhaps one of the most historically accurate books I’ve read in many years. As well, there is a biblical underpinning here: our heroine has a pet snake and this is a tree of knowledge. The questions asked are often theological in nature and it is the women who are the downfall of the men.

The writing is exquisite – evocative but never devolving into purple prose. As well, the characters are extremely nuanced and realistic; all their foibles and strengths, desires and needs, good and bad traits are on exhibit. Even main character Faith is both grounded and doubting -smart enough to know she should have more but conditioned well to realize she will never get the respect of her male counterparts.

And yet, despite all those positives, the pace was off. Tension and anticipation were never grown or capitalized upon; the ‘reveal’ of the murder was so anticlimactic as to have been a throw away. Clearly, the book was never about the whodunnit and instead was more about the exploration of an evolving Victorian society and whether a fruit of ‘truth’ is really such a good thing. Ironically, I would have preferred less mysterious tree and more mysterious killer intrigue. There just wasn’t a pay off to the tree aspect of the story.

So, although a beautifully written story full of fascinating characters, it never engaged me as I had expected to happen after the promise of the first few chapters. But even then, this is leagues better than most YA-themed books on the market today. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Historical, urban fantasy, YA. Bookmark the permalink.

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