Review: A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz

A History Of Glitter and Blood

Sixteen-year-old Beckan and her friends are the only fairies brave enough to stay in Ferrum when war breaks out. Now there is tension between the immortal fairies, the subterranean gnomes, and the mysterious tightropers who arrived to liberate the fairies.
But when Beckan’s clan is forced to venture into the gnome underworld to survive, they find themselves tentatively forming unlikely friendships and making sacrifices they couldn’t have imagined. As danger mounts, Beckan finds herself caught between her loyalty to her friends, her desire for peace, and a love she never expected. — [X]

NOTE: Many thanks to Nafiza for passing along her review copy from Chronicle Books to me. <3

A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz, as the tagline on the book says, is no fairy tale. It is, oddly, not even much of a history but sometimes I think about what capital “H” history ought to be (and how it never is what it ought to be), and I look at this book and I think there isn’t a fiction I’ve read that more accurately explores:

  • why history is important (or, from a fiction writer’s perspective, why story is important)
  • what it means to be a writer of history/ a story
  • what it means to be the subject of history/ a story
  • what it means to be neglected by history (or for that matter, being obsessed over by history)
  • and what it means to be recording something that you are so, inextricably a part of making … but also not really part of it all?

The story begins with a flurry of background detail that is just mysterious enough to keep you hooked, and detailed enough to keep you from getting confused. (Perfect exposition is perfect.) We meet Beckan Moloy, who is the fairy from whose eyes most of this history is told. When we first meet her, Ferrum has just been evacuated by the fairies (not wanting to risk their lives defending a place they might just choose to leave anyway) and it is being warred over by the underground-dwelling, cannibalistic gnomes and the kind of colonising tightroper “liberators”. Beckan and three of her friends are the last unmaimed fairies and the first to decide to remain in Ferrum … until you turn to page three and Beckan’s pack is no longer whole in any sense of the word. For a third or so of the novel, the narrative shuttles back and forth between what has passed and what is coming to pass. It is when Beckan meets a tightroper named Piccolo that things begin to take on a real tone of uncertainty. We see a network of cracks forming: on Beckan’s understanding of her own life and story, on her relationship to the gnomes that she works for, and relationship with her fellow fairies. The question, though, is do these cracks mean something is breaking apart? Or is it akin to something breaking open? [KIND OF SPOILER: I don’t know what unexpected love the summary speaks of, but just keep in mind that nothing is uncomplex in this book. Which I kinda like that.]

The writing in this book is pretty much genius. I only recently read a book by Moskowitz for the first time (Not Otherwise Specified; so, so good) and I was interested to see how her fantasy style would vary (if at all) from her general fiction. I wondered how she would do it. The answer is: brilliantly. Beckan’s story is told in a before-and-after manner, third person narrative shifting fluidly from past tense to present tense, but just when you are getting comfortable with the not knowing, the irreverent, struggling author of Beckan’s story and the war over Ferrum, interjects and shakes things up:

Once upon a time there was a writer who couldn’t write a fucking book.

I don’t know what comes next. The whole chapter’s going to need to get thrown out anyway, You completely forgot halfway through that you said it was raining at the beginning.

Was it raining?

No one’s ever going to know, and it’s all your fault.

I spent a fair bit of the novel making ridiculously wrong guesses about the identity of this writer (apart from, you know, “Heh. Moskowitz is having a ball with this!”), when it was really fairly obvious early on in the book. The difficulty for me was in reconciling the writers’ facts with the writer’s fevered imagination, which moves from tender and realistic to unbearably self-serving and, sometimes, straight-up creepy.

That said, what I loved about this writer and their identity is how they make you second-guess everything: you wonder how they gathered their information, what they are not telling you about fairies and their relationships with gnomes and tightropers, why they chose Beckan (the only female in the story for a long time) as their protagonist/vehicle/tool, what the illustrations (yes, there are illustrations) neglect to show, why they sometimes switched perspectives, what they are not saying when they are saying something entirely unexpected. The beauty of A History of Blood and Glitter is that after you put it down, it makes you wonder why you never second-guessed history books, why you never challenged the way certain narrative (fiction or otherwise) are shaped.

It is also interesting to look at the way that the writer is under pressure to write something “interesting” rather than dry history, so you wonder how much of this war account is an account about the war at all. And then you wonder if any war is simply about the factual documentation of violence and politics. History books will probably say yes– after all we rarely get accounts of what war was like for regular people, how it affects them, how they deal with it. This book pushes back on those notions. The fairies in this story are anything but regular, but Beckan is certainly not the Chosen One or a Hero and neither are her friends. The book may be a fantasy, but it expertly deals with so many realities. And the reality is that sometimes difficult decisions are easy when mixed with the persistence of hunger and the invincibility of youth. The reality is that Beckan and two of her friends have been selling themselves to gnomes whose women were stolen by tightropers, that love is easy sometimes and friendship is hard (especially when one of your own is gone and his loved one is left to live out actual eternity bereft and depressed), and that history could be reduced to a bullet-point list under any circumstance is laughable. The reality is that a bunch of kids decide to defy the stereotypes of their respective species and they realised that the world does not give a damn– so what happens to them now?

A History of Glitter and Blood is not what you would expect from a fantasy but once you’ve read it, you wonder how you expected (or even hoped) for anything different. The words “unique” and “verisimilitude” do neither the style nor the content of Moskowitz’s latest book any justice. It is raw in its awfulness and beauty and reading it will most certainly leave you changed. Definitely one of my favourite books of the year and easily one of my favourite fantasy novels of all time. I’d recommend this to anyone who appreciates fantasy for what it is: both a genre as well as our already warped reality’s warped mirror*. Also, to lovers of historical fiction. And to writers of any fiction. Basically, A++. All the gold stars. It destroyed me. Please send fanfiction.

*Just be sure you don’t mind some light gore and some heavy violence. (You think that sounds contradictory– it’s not.)