"Women find themselves on battlefields, just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish." (303)
That line about sums up the theme to this teen coming-of-age historical fantasy mystery. The story is set during the late 1800s in England with the main historical landmark being Darwin's writings and the divide in scientific thought concerning God's presence. Females have no rights and are relegated to housekeeping and family, with no place for them in scholarship and science. The Sunderly family has suddenly moved to the small island of Vale. Faith, the protagonist, is coming of age where she is expected to behave properly and start preparing for marriage when she wants to pursue science. Scandal follows her father to the island, and he dies under mysterious circumstances. Faith believers her father was murdered, so she starts digging for clues. She looks into his research and discovers that he came into possession of the Mendacity Tree (the Lie Tree, and the one fantasy element in this historical mystery). She thinks she can use the Tree to discover the truth of her father's death. The Tree feeds on lies to bear fruit with some piece of truth, so Faith starts spreading lies and rumors on the island to flush out the truth.
Hardinge’s writing is solid with strong characters. The historical setting is well-captured and developed that it did not come across as just a mouthpiece about women's rights. The ideas and setting are not exactly new, but her strong writing makes the ideas and story fresh and compelling. She gets into the mindset of both the men and women of the time period and what they believed, making it seem believable with the way the story unfolds. Hardinge weaves this theme of female inequality carefully into the plot with the parts other female characters play in the story--that of Mrs. Sunderly, Mrs. Lambent, Miss Hunter, and others who fight in their own way to control their lives. Faith does not understand the full extent of how these women fight, and it adds to the suspense. Faith is an intriguing protagonist. She chafes in her position--a girl coming of age and a young woman not considered worthy of pursuing science. She is young enough to want and need her father's approval and acknowledgement. She is devoted to him and seeks justice and revenge for him. She wants more from life than being an ornament or being known for her relationship to a man. She is more than just a sweet, loving daughter--there is a lot of rage, ugliness, even viciousness, which Hardinge captures believably, that makes Faith very human, real, and someone to relate to.