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Introduction | Reviews | My Grandmother and the Grimmer | Creepy Dolls

Cuckoo Song


This is what people have been saying about Cuckoo Song:

The Sunday Times

(in choosing Cuckoo Song as one of their 100 Modern Children's Classics)
"Frances Hardinge won the Branford Boase award for her first book, Fly by Night, and this and her subsequent novels have proved her to be one of our most literary children’s authors. This outstanding book has the broad appeal to extend her reach, since it not only offers her characteristically exhilarating phrase-making, but is an enticing mystery from the first page. Set in the 1920s, it begins with mollycoddled 11-year-old Triss, who wakes in her sickbed feeling strange. The strangeness accretes, in a chilling, fantastical, gothic accumulation that mines our fears and lures us on. The story, full of tension and danger, involves a terrible contract made by a desperate family, and explores grief, revenge and forgiveness, as well as misguided parenting and sibling rivalry, tracing the way adversarial sisters become friends. It is admirable for its observation and its surprises, but above all for prose as smart as this: 'There was a kink at the corner of his smile that made her think of a treacherous raised nail on a stair carpet.' It makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, both for the writing and for the creepiness of the tale." ~ Nicolette Jones, read more

The Guardian

"Frances Hardinge writes peculiar books, and Cuckoo Song, the latest in her award-winning canon, is her most peculiar yet. I mean this as a compliment, and have no doubt that Hardinge, in her trademark black hat, will take it as such. Her work is ostentatiously eerie, and she writes with all the gleeful menace of one of Macbeth's witches brewing a spooky potion while dancing wildly around a cauldron. In Cuckoo Song, instead of eyes of newts and toes of frogs in medieval England, we have doll-eating girls and girl-eating cinema screens in the 1920s, but the end product is something similar – a deliciously dark and dangerous concoction that casts a bewitching spell." ~ Annabel Pitcher, read more

The Telegraph

"The novel will appeal to fans of fantasy fiction and the book is full of strong and inventive description. 'Her eyes were cold and hard like those of a thrush,' for example… This dark fairy-story is long (409 pages) but maintains its suspense well and is full of twists and creepy moments." ~ Martin Chilton, read more

Literary Review

"For young teenagers, Frances Hardinge's Cuckoo Song remoulds the changeling myth, from the point of view of the changeling. Hardinge excels at creating slightly askew worlds: we are in an alternative 1920s, inhabited by motorbike-riding young women and a race of fairy-like creatures who have a terrible hold over an architect – they snatched his daughter and replaced her with a monster made out of wood and paper. This monster has a consciousness, a growing sense of identity and enough of the human girl's memories to want to put a stop to the horror. With a gift for eerie atmosphere and intelligent writing that is immediately recognisable as her own, Hardinge has written a book that will keep eager readers absorbed for days (and may make them look at their siblings with new eyes)." ~ Philip Womack

The Times

"'All was perhaps. Nothing was certain. And that, that was wonderful.' Hardinge is a terrific writer, author of the award-winning Fly by Night and A Face Like Glass. In her fabulously creepy and thoughtful sixth novel she brings a magical world of changelings to the societal craters left by the First World War. I cannot recommend this enough."~ Alex O'Connell

School Library Journal (starred review)

"Gr 5 Up: Ever since her older brother died in World War I, things have been tense for Triss and her family. After Triss suffers a horrible accident, her memory is hindered and all of a sudden she feels a strange, insatiable hunger that can only be calmed by digesting unusual items. From here, events proceed in an unexpected way as magical promises are made, relationships are tested, and characters question what it means to be alive. Mysterious letters and dangerous strangers create a mood of suspicion and paranoia as pieces of the story fall into place at just the right moment. Many secondary characters make understandable but regrettable mistakes throughout, cementing themselves as realistic and complex individuals. The beautiful writing is full of rich language that is reminiscent of an old fairy tale. Fans of Hardinge will not be disappointed in this latest spine-chilling, creative work that offers a nuanced depiction of grief within the structure of a well-wrought fantasy."~ Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

Bulletin of the Centre for Children's Books (starred review)

"After the death of her older brother in World War I, young Triss Crescent took ill and never really recovered. Her frailty seemed to please her parents and stave off their grief, so she continued to feign sickness, even as her behavior enraged her younger sister, Penelope. Now, however, an accident Triss can’t quite remember has left her truly disoriented, inexplicably hungry all the time, and trailing leaves and branches wherever she goes. Initially convinced she’s lost her mind, Triss eventually discovers the brutal bargain her sister made with a sinister creature, a creature bent on the destruction of Triss’ family unless she and Penelope can find a way to stop it. The English post-war setting, a time and place rife with grief but poised for progress, makes a fascinating complement to Hardinge’s take on the changeling tale, and she mines the tension between modernity and the old world to great effect. The family dynamics are thoughtfully and subtly played out here as well, with the Crescent parents’ stubborn adherence to the stiff-upper-lip approach to loss clashing with their daughters’ devastating need for comfort, a need that essentially creates a monster. Hardinge’s quiet but elegant prose moves the story seamlessly from an effectively creepy horror tale to a powerful, emotionally resonant story of regret and forgiveness. Readers who enjoyed the haunted atmospheres of Hartnett’s The Children of the King (BCCB 3/14) or Barraclough’s Long Lankin (BCCB 9/12) will find this just as satisfying." ~ KQG

The Toronto Star (summer reading pick)

"Hardinge weaves together a changeling tale, old fairy lore and a recovery story of post-war Britain, her earthy similes and poetic flourishes animating even the most humdrum elements of the setting." ~ Deirdre Baker, read more

Fuse #8

"[F]ew books do a better job of pinpointing the post traumatic stress syndrome of a post-WWI nation than Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song. They will tell you that it’s a creepy doll book with changelings and fairies and things that go bump in the night. It is all of that. It is also one of the smartest dissections of what happens when a war is done and the survivors are left to put their lives back together. Some do a good job. Some do not." ~ Elizabeth Bird, read more


"When Triss awakens after an accident, something isn't right. Her parents pet her but her sister seems to hate her. Spooky, brilliant changeling story with an intriguing between-wars setting."


"Slowly Triss realises that not only is she not who she thinks she is, but that her father and mother have secrets of their own, and she has only a limited amount of time in which to fix things. Supernatural elements are introduced slowly, resulting in a charming, yet unsettling, fairytale." ~ Miriam McDonald

Strange Horizons

"Cuckoos, as I mentioned, are not known for euphony. They are, however, named for their cry, and the distinctive noise they make has spawned an entire clock industry with the cuckoo at its center. The cuckoo chick, as other chicks do, cries out for food and care and attention and love from its parents, and understands no reason why it should not receive them. For this novel, and for Not-Triss, being able to articulate the cry is just enough." ~ Lila Garrott, read more

Booklist (starred review)

"Few authors can evoke a twinned sense of terror and wonder better than Hardinge. After a perilous dunk in the river Grimmer that she can't recall, Triss is unsettled by the strangeness of familiar spaces and people. Triss remembers her life, but it doesn't feel quite … hers. Her room and possessions are like a dream. Her protective parents, who never fully recovered from her brother's death in WWI, seem fearful, while her adversarial younger sister, Pen, is blatantly hostile. Add to that a gnawing hunger only satiated by ingesting, impossibly, her most treasured objects, and Triss worries she’s lost her mind. In her efforts learn the truth, Triss uncovers a magical community of Besiders led by a malevolent figure called the Architect, and it's here that she learns of the hidden deals that have given her family wealth and success but prolonged their grief. Hardinge's story is vivid, frightening, and inventive, with narrative twists and turns feel both surprising and inevitable and attention to beautiful language that delights. Hardinge uses her characters to explore the destabilizing effect of war, both on a societal and personal level, but the novel's heart is in the grippingly sympathetic Triss, prickly Pen, and their shared journey to save their family. A piercing, chilling page-turner." ~ Krista Hutley, read more


"This dark fairy-story from critically acclaimed author Frances Hardinge puts a richly imaginative spin on the old tales of changelings. Haunting, atmospheric and full of mystery, this is a beautifully-written and captivating novel. Sensitive readers beware: there are some genuinely chilling and disturbing scenes here; however, ambitious readers will relish this clever, complex and rewarding tale." ~ read more

Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

"This dense and twisty fantasy set in post-World War I Great Britain mixes monstrous creatures, sibling rivalry, a supernatural doppelgänger, family dysfunction and a kidnapping into a complex brew of eerie atmosphere and unexpected events. Hardinge is a master stylist whose imaginative works resemble one another only in the consistently impressive quality of her writing. Each narrative builds a unique world, and this combination of postwar tristesse and scary magical beings known as Besiders is no different. Evocative descriptions of the parallel settings, sharply drawn characters and fast-paced action pull readers along, though some may occasionally be distracted rather than transported by the heavy use of metaphor. Freakish actions and confusion on the part of the main character set the stage for an unsettling revelation a quarter of the way through that adds even more suspense and challenges readers' ability to empathize. While sisters Triss and Penelope are 11 and 9, the dangers they face and the issues their family grapples with suggest that readers slightly older than the protagonists will be best equipped to sort through the murky motivations, painful betrayals and matter-of-factly presented alternate reality. Nuanced and intense, this painstakingly created tale mimics the Escher-like constructions of its villainous Architect, fooling the eyes and entangling the emotions of readers willing and able to enter into a world like no other. (Fantasy. 11–14)"


"Hardinge’s talent is to take a slightly odd story and make it utterly bizarre. Because of the perspective the author has taken here, we get a fairly simple and traditional tale told in a unique and exciting way. Hardinge doesn’t hesitate to slam the reader with revelation after revelation; just as the reader thinks they’ve gotten a handle on what’s going on with Triss’ family, another event smashes apart their assumptions, drawing the reader in further. The characterisation is so strong that it is easy to imagine the story from other points of view as each antagonist feels like a real person with strong motivations." ~ Ed Fortune Tuesday, read more

Publishers' Weekly (starred review)

"In the guise of a gorgeously written and disconcerting fairy tale, Hardinge (A Face Like Glass) delves deeply into the darker side of family life, particularly sibling rivalry and the devastating effect war can have on those left at home." ~ read more


"Something terrible has happened to Triss. It's worse than the story her parents tell, that Triss fell into the lake and came back with a raging fever. It's stranger than the bratty behavior of Triss' little sister, who seems tortured by Triss' presence. Triss' memories are spotty, but when she finds herself devouring one of her own dolls, she can no longer ignore the truth that she is no longer Triss. As Not-Triss, she finds herself in an eerie game of cat-and-mouse with a bizarre magical force that seems to be terrorizing her family.
"The novel is set just after World War I, when Triss' brother was purportedly killed, and author Frances Hardinge's version of England reflects the desperate attempts of a people trying to forget. With a combination of horror and wry humor reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, Cuckoo Song transcends its teen-reader designation. The psychological and historical nuances, aong with the sheer horror of Not-Triss' existence, will mesmerize older readers as well." ~ Diane Colson

"This truly bone-chilling exploration of how families grapple with devastating loss will leave readers questioning who Triss really is and what happened the night of her accident." ~ Avery Hastings, read more

The Horn Book

"Eleven-year-old Triss Crescent wakes up confused after a terrifying accident. Her memories don't feel like her own; she hears a voice like dry leaves; and a ravenous hunger devours all self-control. Mysteries quickly darken further, with whispers about secret enemies and a missing-presumed-dead brother; meanwhile, dolls come eerily to life, and Triss's spiteful little sister Pen seems to know what is going on. Though the sisters have been at odds for years, mutual trust will be the only way to set things right. As Triss tracks down the sinister explanation for her bizarre circumstances, her sheltered life turns into an adventure through a grotesque magical world, one that exists in the shadows of her own, vividly evoked, 1920s town. Hardinge (Fly by Night; The Lost Conspiracy, rev. 9/09) writes with a comfortable command of changeling-child story traditions, twisting them into her own darkly imaginative contribution to the genre. Breathless chases and tense foreboding drive the plot toward a harrowing climax, in which mortality and magic contend spectacularly. Hardinge is equally adept at capturing family dynamics; even during the most fantastical occurrences, the Crescent family's strained interactions are realistically nuanced. Cuckoo Song is a sophisticated, disturbing tale that shivers with suspense and touching moments of bravery." ~ Sarah Berman

Young Post

"Author Frances Hardinge expertly piles on the feeling of unease and tension in the opening chapters of her chillingly dark new novel, Cuckoo Song. […] The book is recommended for everyone who enjoys a dark fantasy and Hardinge, to her credit, wraps things up very convincingly, with no loose ends left for a sequel. An unusual, but most welcome, change!" ~ John Millen, read more

An Awfully Big Blog Adventure

"When I opened Frances Hardinge's new book, Cuckoo Song and read those words, I knew I was going to enjoy it. After a few more pages, I found myself closing the book, and hugging it close to my chest. I wanted to hold on to that moment – the fizz and delight of knowing this story was going to get under my skin and make me live it, and for as long as I stopped, and refused to read any more, it would all still be there, waiting for me, stretching out ahead. It's the best feeling – and Cuckoo Song didn't disappoint. It's a glorious, imaginative, delicately spooky book, with characters that stay with you afterwards, and some fine twists and turns of plot." ~ Cecilia Busby, read more

The Book Smugglers

"Cuckoo Song is, just like any book written by Frances Hardinge, a book that works on many levels. In the most elemental way, it is a supremely well-written novel. I’ve said this many times before but it bears repeating: Frances Hardinge’s writing awes me for its creativity, for its sentence structure, for the way she is able to relay so many things in not so many words. Above all for simply making the most of her premise: for taking what’s a story about a girl and making it a story about a family, about one town, about time and about a specific point in time, about women in general and one girl in particular, about differences, about outsiders and about identity, about autonomy and agency. All of this is beautifully woven too, there are no jarring moments to take us out of what is simply put, a very engaging, beautiful, hopeful story." ~ Ana, read more

"Cuckoo Song is now my favorite Frances Hardinge novel… I loved every moment of the book, and it is most certainly one of my top 10 reads of 2014." ~ Thea, read more

Bibliophilic Monologues

"Throughout this novel, one particular thing is reiterated once and again: adults will let you down. I found one of the scenes in the book, a turning point, to be fascinating in the way it portrayed adults as the true antagonists of the story. The novel reduces adults in very interesting ways and the only positive “adult” is a young adult who, it can be argued, still holds on to childhood in some fleeting way. The characters are all well hewn, particularly Triss and I loved how Hardinge uses names to denote her protagonist’s growth. The language is rich and evocative and while the pacing is slow compared to other books intended for younger audiences, I felt that the payoff is much more rewarding and substantial when compared to these same books." ~ Nafiza, read more

Chased by My Imagination

"So wow, I was blown away by this book. Perhaps it was a bit slow at times but I loved the world that Hardinge built, the characters she wrote and it was nice to see a good amount of development over time. There were so many great moments and Hardinge shows here that she is a very good horror and fantasy writer. Her ideas were very creative and some of the horror found within was pretty disturbing and certainly succeeded in giving the book a creepy tone. I would love to read more of Hardinge's stuff, an exceptional talent!" ~ Katrina Southern, read more

Books of Amber

"I loved the prose; the descriptions of the world, the detail given to Triss and the sheer imagery of her character was outstanding tbh. Also, the reveal? I did not see it coming, guys. What a good everything when a book can wrap you in its story so successfully. Gullstruck Island is still my favourite novel of hers, but Cuckoo Song was a fantastic addition to Hardinge’s works and I really hope a lot of people read it because it deserves to be read and talked about more." ~ read more

Things Mean a Lot

"I keep going back and forth on whether I can say with absolute confidence that this is Frances Hardinge’s best novel to date – not because I have any doubts about how brilliant Cuckoo Song, but because I keep remembering that the rest of her work is also extraordinary. I can tell you with full certainty, though, that this is a fine example of Hardinge on top of her game, and that it would make a great introduction to her work. If you’re looking for smart, complex, politically engaged children’s fantasy with excellent storytelling and characterisation, look no further. There’s simply no one better than Frances Hardinge." ~ Ana S., read more

By Singing Light

"I think this is the scariest of Hardinge’s books – the first quarter is one of those nightmare situations that when written well is incredibly terrifying – and yet, like The Lost Conspiracy, there are mostly not villains so much as people doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Against this is arrayed the strength of friendship, of sisterhood, of making a different choice than the ones you’re presented with. Ultimately I found it utterly compelling and beautifully written, and – as I’ve come to expect from Hardinge – a subtle, surprising look at the world and how we make ourselves in it." ~ read more

Studio Reads

"The Cuckoo Song spins an classic old tale that mixes folklore with hoodoo along with secrets and revenge, at the core love, family and friendship, there's something Frances Hardinge has woven into Cuckoo Song, that's lyrical and hypnotic." ~ Kirsty-Marie Jones, read more

We Love This Book

"This is a dark tale about a changeling child, subtle in its eeriness which doesn’t hit you hard; it creeps up and sends a shiver down your spine. The story runs with an undercurrent of uneasiness and intrigue." ~ Kristy Rabbitt, read more

Fallen Star Stories

"Cuckoo Song takes what the reader 'knows' about fairytales and turns it inside out. A carefully constructed story, the world created here is so very like reality that the lapse into that Other Realm is tangible, and can even seem likely. The pace is perfect, the drama compelling and the characters are so remarkably genuine in their behaviour and reasoning as to give shivers. As with all of Hardinge's books, I absolutely loved Cuckoo Song. The use of language and description is magnificent, but it never becomes over-burdened with itself in either that language or the plot. It is such a chilling, creepy read, but is filled with all the emotional content of the human spirit. A wondrous, breathtaking and simply fantastic read!" ~ Mary Esther Judy, read more


"I recommend this book to people of all ages and backgrounds. If you're the sort who does not read Middle Grade for fear of it being childish, please don't let that keep you from reading this. Cuckoo Song is a deeply moving, multi-layered book about finding oneself, where magic and the aftermath of World War I walk hand in hand." ~ Tessa, read more

Peters Books and Furniture

"Really quite creepy in true Hardinge style, with vivid characters and a dark but engrossing plot. Mix of fantasy and WW1 reality just adds to the macabre atmosphere. Good."

A Dream of Books

"The story is a delicious blend of magic and fantasy which will entrance readers as they follow Triss on a journey of self-discovery and reconciliation." ~ Samantha, read more


"It was such an intriguing, magical, deep & dark tale. Though classed as a middle-grade book it can easily be enjoyed by readers of any age because of such an original story line and magical quality to it." ~ Tess Burton, read more


"Frances Hardinge creates a brilliant sense of menace in this chillingly dark fairy story. Something sinister, beyond just getting wet, happens to Triss when she falls into the Grimmer. Something that causes her to change in all kinds of ways which her parents don't recognise. Triss can feel the changes – she is always hungry, her hair is full of leaves, her tears are like cobwebs and her sister is terrified of her – but she cannot understand why they are happening. Somehow, Triss has been taken over. She is now a changeling and she needs to search through the underworld of the city itself to find the truth." ~ Julia Eccleshare, read more

The Whispering of the Pages

"Oh how I love beautiful prose. This book is a work of art. Every sentence is an elegant, perfectly constructed gem. All right. I'm exaggerating a little." ~ read more

The Sweet Review

"I love this book so much I tried to savour it like I do with sweets! The story is so vivid and intense that I feel as if Hardinge is painting pictures in my mind. The imagery is fantastic – the characters, especially Triss and Pen, come to life as soon as I pick up the book. In general, the scenes are all amazing but my favourite part is just after the climax. I enjoyed this book so much because of its twisted fantasy and the fairytale hidden inside." ~ read more

The Bibliophibian

"It's a compulsive read without naked demands for attention; the tension is, for the most part, in uneasiness and anxiety, in a nagging feeling that things aren't right. It's done incredibly well, to my mind." ~ read more

Dancing on Glass

"[Cuckoo Song] doesn’t have the same huge canvas or extraordinary feats of world-building as the other novels but is instead rooted in 1920s Britain. Aptly, in this centenary year, it’s a story about World War 1 and its aftermath as the social mores and attitudes of Britain began to be questioned and transformed. That makes Cuckoo Song’s canvas, without wanting to sound too grandiose, modernity and I’m happy to report Hardinge is up to the different kind of task she has set herself. It’s a dark, potent and heady tale of doubles and doppelgangers, monsters and mayhem, courage and conviction. I loved it and am still a little giddy and euphoric over it. Readers, Cuckoo Song is the bee’s knees." ~ read more

Reviews in VOYA, one from an adult reviewer and two from teen reviewers

5Q 3P M J S (Review code: Q is for Quality and P is for Popularity, on a scale from 1 to 5. “M,J,S” denotes grade level interest – Middle School, Junior High, and Senior High)

"Twelve-year-old Triss wakes up not recalling the last few hours. Her parents tell her that she fell in the river and that she is recovering well. Her younger sister, Pen, immediately turns hostile upon seeing her, however, and this level of hostility shocks Triss. Since the death of their older brother, Sebastian, during the First World War, her architect father and her stay-at-home mother have been distant. Now, Triss feels different, as if she were someone else. As she begins to discover clues about Pen's anger towards her and her ravenous hunger, Triss becomes enmeshed in the revenge plans of a mysterious man known as the Architect, who wishes nothing but their destruction. Running on borrowed time with the help of Violet, Sebastian’s fiancee, and Pen, Triss must stop the Architect's grand vision from coming true before it is too late.
"Based in early 1920s England, this family has suffered a tragedy and is unable to cope with it. Every character is fleshed out and their motivations are clear, all except for Triss who, appropriately for the story, remains a work in progress as she discovers who, or what, she really is. Hardinge slowly and craftily builds a horrific yet spellbinding narrative that culminates in an unforgettable confrontation. There are only gradations between good and evil in this book, and each character performs acts they later regret. Triss and her family cannot escape the fact that their fate is intertwined. Fans of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Marina: A Gothic Tale (Little, Brown, 2014/VOYA August 2014) and those who like horror served with a side of hopeful frightfulness will thoroughly enjoy this book." ~ Etienne Vallee.

"Cuckoo Song not only tempts reader forward with its creepy and unnatural twists, but also drags readers right into Triss's crazed mind, keeping them present with incredible detail. Triss stays as up-to-date with the mystery as readers do, for surprises are at every turn of the page. Readers will find themselves buried in the pages of this book, caught up in the puzzle that endangers a little girl's identity. 4Q, 3P." ~ Emily Ulm, Teen Reviewer.

"This story continuously eggs the reader on with eerie tricks and surprises as Triss's crazy adventure of discovering who she really is unfurls. Cuckoo Song is enticing and heart-stopping with all of its unexpected and amazing moments. Readers will find that they are unable to voluntarily stop reading for even a second. 4Q, 3P." ~ Brittney Delaney, Teen Reviewer.