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Battle of the Books

Round 3 Match 1: Charles and Emma vs The Lost Conspiracy

Charles and Emma
by Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt
The Lost Conspiracy
by Frances Hardinge

Judged by Megan Whalen Turner

So I am not good with suspense.  I’ll save you others who are like me from skipping several paragraphs to see who the winner is and I’ll tell you right out.  I picked The Lost Conspiracy.

While we were strolling through the topiary with Tobin, he laid out excellent arguments for Charles and Emma.  They’re all still there, so I hope that you will go read them if you haven’t already.  Charles and Emma is a wonderful, valuable, cherished piece of work.  I just happen to love Frances Hardinge’s book more.  Charles and Emma held my interest and warmed my heart, but The Lost Conspiracy stoked my imagination and rather set my brain on fire.

Both books take an oblique approach to events in our own world.  Heiligman doesn’t bring in the present day controversy of religion versus science and Hardinge is careful to subvert any one-to one correlation between her fiction and historical events.  We can draw parallels on our own.

Their expectations of their readers are radically different. As Tobin said, “[Heiligman] is … trying to narrate events as clearly as possible while keeping us emotionally and intellectually engaged.”  Heiligman does all the heavy lifting as she introduces you to wonderful people and tactfully suggests that we are not the first to debate the primacy of science and faith.  I love the quotes from the Darwin family letters and I’m grateful that Heiligman allowed them to speak so much for themselves.

If Charles and Emma floats you downriver to a peaceful sea of conclusions, The Lost Conspiracy compels the reader on a much less gentle journey. Hardinge expects you to stick with her, and as Angela said, it takes work. There’s humor, but it is a peppery kind.  The idea that the Lace were quietly abducting the odd member of the Cavalcaste community and sacrificing them to the local Volcano, as a favor to the Cavalcaste, leaves me equal parts laughing and horrified.

Hardinge allows no preconceptions here about who the “good guys” are, which lets us see that no one in this world is perfect, with the possible exception of [spoilers?].  On opposite “teams,” but working for the same master, what they are is perfectly awful.  Hardinge wipes out an entire village to the last man, woman, and child, just the way people have done in the real world for as long as there have been people, because she won’t coddle her readers.

I love it that this is not a Romeo and Juliette story.  The two sides in this story are not brought together by a star-crossed love affair, or by a special cross-cultural friendship. The Lace are surrounded by Lace.  The Cavalcaste by other Cavalcaste. It takes more than just a personal connection to begin to bring these two sides together; it takes a superhuman act of compassion for people who are almost entirely unknown.

I love Crackgem, King of Fans, Sorrow and Spearhead, er, Broken Brow.   I love that you can believe anything you want about them.  Their story is not so much open-ended as it is open-minded.

The point of BoB, is that the judges have axes to grind, and I am happy to identify mine.  (Besides the no-dead-dogs one, to which I’ve already confessed.)  A writer who asks a lot from the reader is a writer who believes the reader can deliver.  That’s a writer with a lot of respect for her audience. It’s a risk for an author to demand so much, and I want Hardinge to be rewarded for it.

That’s because it’s a risk for a reader, too.  A reader has to have faith in an author to invest so much in a story, and I think Hardinge pays back on that investment, a hundred times over.

Reading The Lost Conspiracy is like climbing the mountain and turning around to see the world laid out at your feet.  Only, in this case, the mountain is a volcano.

Megan Whalen Turner

The first book that goes into the FINAL ROUND IS….

I am not good with suspense?!? Meaning that you can dish it out, but you can’t take it!  Maybe we should all just turn to the last page of A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS and read it first . . . Anyway, I love both of these books.  I do agree with Tobin that there is some repetition in CHARLES AND EMMA, but otherwise I think the book is about as perfect as it can be, and the choice to tell this story in such a novelistic fashion is truly inspired.  Now Helen and Angela both had problems getting into THE LOST CONSPIRACY, but like Megan I found this such an effortless story to slip into, and I particularly love the way that all of the background information that may seem gratuitous at first becomes very relevant later in the story.  Both books seem weightier than either MARCHING FOR FREEDOM or TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA.  Can either of those prevail?  And what of the Undead Poll winner?  Hmmm.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt


  1. I guessed wrong this time, but I respect Megan’s choice.
    I especially agree with the following part; “A writer who asks a lot from the reader is a writer who believes the reader can deliver.”

  2. Megan Whalen Turner, I kiss your tiny feet.

  3. I was right! And for most of the right reasons: The Lost Conspiracy is a tough but rewarding book. Thank you Megan Whalen Turner! But for the record, I never skip to the end to read the winner first. I love the suspense.

  4. Whew! Glad it made it. (I’m still on team ZombieFire (FiZo? ZoFi?) but I love this one too and want it to be there right to the end. When Fire, who will be even more badass when a zombie, will reign victorious.)

  5. Sorry to have spoiled the fun of those who actually enjoy suspense. Yes, Jonathan, I can dish it out, but not take it. Fuse? Step away from my feet, woman.

  6. I agree with Jonathan: It seemed terribly incongruous for Megan Whalen Turner to say she’s not good with suspense. That would be like J. K. Rowling saying she’s not good with imaginative details.

    She didn’t actually have to save me the suspense, because I always scroll down to see who won right away. But I did like knowing where she was going right up front.

    There’s no question about it: I love everything Megan Whalen Turner writes, from books to Battle of the Books judging.

    She increased my respect for the brilliant THE LOST CONSPIRACY. Instead of being turned off by the massacre of the Lace village, she points out that Frances Hardinge is not coddling her readers. Instead of not being emotionally engaged because both sides have their cruelties, she points that out as a virtue of the book, more realistic and more complex.

    I’m pleased that I’ve guessed the last five battles correctly — maybe I’m finally tracking with the judges. Or maybe I just like books with “Conspiracy” in the title.

  7. In the 1st round, I was sad about a few of the decisions–Marcelo! But in the final round, the strongest books are finding their way. Next year I’ll look forward to seeing A Conspiracy of Kings in the running.

    I just finished reading The Lost Conspiracy today and find this one of my favorite books of all time. Hardinge fulfilled all of my hopes and dreams for this book and made my heart happy, yet wistful that it ended. Amazing.

    Waiting for a final showdown btw The Lost Conspiracy and Tales from Outer Suburbia (sorry Marching for Freedom)–and the zombie book…can’t wait!

  8. One final battle cry before I slink off: CharMa! CharMa! CharMa!

    Now off to read LoCo.

  9. Although we were given the facts up front, did anyone else fear a sudden twist in the plot before our most excellent judge finished her narative?

    Sondy stole my line about titles with Conspiracy in them. Having one of my favorite authors talk about one of my favorite books is decadance not usually found outside a pastry/cheesecake store.

  10. Liz, just for you, I’ll be sure not to miss CharMa.
    but, yeah–LoCo!!!

  11. Yay! I knew MWT wouldn’t let me down! I had to re-read TLC but it was well worth it. I finally realized the title had a double meaning… Anyway, can’t wait to see Tales march all over Freedom and then battle it out with TLC and Zombie Fire!! Gonna be huge!


  1. […] Hardinge comes highly recommended by Megan Whalen Turner and you can see her talk about the book here. You all know how big of a fan I am of MWT and her books so of course, I wanted to read The Lost […]

  2. […] did read a few things written this century. Frances Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy. Maggie Stievater’s Ballad right after I finished her book, Lament. I like every book by […]

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