The people of Raddith are used to living with magic. The country bustles with business, bureaucracy and other hallmarks of humanity, but around its edges are whispers of curses—dangerous magic spawned from intense negative emotion. Kellen, an unraveller with the rare ability to undo these curses, and Nettle, his stoic companion with a hidden past, make a meager living catching cursers and helping those they’ve cursed. After an old enemy threatens revenge against Kellen for unraveling her curse and leading to her imprisonment, Kellen and Nettle stumble into a mystery that challenges everything they know about Raddith, magic and their friendship.
In Unraveller, acclaimed author Frances Hardinge creates two settings that both feel fantastical and familiar: Raddith, the land of humans, and the Wilds, the marshy woods where magic thrives. The novel features otherworldly creatures such as spell-weaving Little Brothers, which are “not spiders, however much they look like them,” terrifying bog spirits and more, but Hardinge also depicts how humans coexist with such creatures. The humans in Raddith see them as a source of power, while people in the Wilds treat them with respect, even reverence. The novel’s unique magic system reflects this intertwining of the mundane and the marvelous as well: Strange, unpredictable curses that transform people into animals or steal their shadows stem from pent-up human emotions like resentment, anger and hatred.
This emotion-fueled magic system places character development at the forefront of Unraveller. Nettle seems calm and collected, but she actually struggles to express how she feels, while Kellen understands the importance of communication but flees as soon as a curse is lifted, not realizing that true healing takes time. Their personalities clash and complement each other throughout the book, demonstrating how growth and friendship aren’t linear—but are rewarding.
Hardinge isn’t afraid to challenge her readers to rethink their perceptions of hatred and healing, and she does so by venturing into some of the darkest aspects of human guilt, shame and anger. Almost every member of the novel’s large cast must learn to deal with complicated emotions, whether they’re cursers or cursed, from minor villagers to Kellen and Nettle’s most trusted allies. Some characters fall prey to their feelings, while others open up, forgive and change their ways.
Unraveller is a multilayered, challenging and unflinching read, with occasional depictions of gore and body horror that may unsettle some readers. It poses a difficult but deeply necessary question: What does it mean to truly heal and be healed?