A murmuration of starlings by Franny Billingsley

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The Robber Girl has no name and can only speak when someone first speaks to her. Claimed by the outlaw Gentleman Jack when she was very young, she cannot remember any other life and remains loyal to him, even when he is captured and sent to jail. Taken by the Judge to his home the Robber Girl has only her dagger to keep her company as she tries to navigate a world that is very different to the one she shared with Gentleman Jack’s outlaws, living in a cave in the hills. She is a wild thing who cannot read, has no table manners and talks to her Dagger. In the Judge’s house she discovers a dollhouse and two dolls who give her three tasks to perform, while the Judge encourages her to give herself a name. She chooses Starling and gradually settles into the house, going to school, learning to read but never forgetting Gentleman Jack.

In this lyrical and very original novel the reader is asked to follow Starling’s pursuit of the mystery of her upbringing and the mystery that surrounds Gentleman Jack’s pursuit of Grandmother’s command: Fetch unto me the mountain’s gold, to build our city fair. Fetch unto me the wingless bird, and I shall make you my heir.

Told in the voice of the Robber Girl, the reader is taken into the town of Blue Roses, which first appears to be set in the pioneering West. But soon magical elements appear and the reader is plunged into a scenario of part realism and part magic, as Starling tries to navigate her new world. Her conversations with the Dagger often provide some light relief as the trauma that is Starling’s background comes to light with the gradual regaining of her memory. The reader is kept guessing whether she will remain as the Robber Girl, desperately trying to free Gentleman Jack, or whether she will be tamed and settle into life with the Judge and Mrs De Salto.

Readers who enjoyed this may wish to read others by this National Book Award finalist, The Folk keeper  and Chime,  and those who like the Western setting may enjoy Walk on Earth a stranger by Rae Carson and Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.

Themes: Historical fiction, Magical realism, Finding a home, Mystery.

Pat Pledger