Author: Frances Hardinge
Genre: Fantasy, Dystopian, Young Adult
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Children’s
Publication date: May 2012
Paperback: 490 pages
In Caverna, lies are an art – and everyone’s an artist . . .
In the underground city of Caverna the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare – wines that can remove memories, cheeses that can make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer, even as they slit your throat. The people of Caverna are more ordinary, but for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned, and only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to show (or fake) joy, despair or fear – at a price.
Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a little girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell’s emotions are as obvious on her face as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, though entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed . . .
Stand alone or series: Standalone
How did we get this book: We both bought our copies
Why did we read this book: Thea saw the book first and added it to her radar and was super keen to read it ASAP. This was around the same time Ana was reading Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery and she knew she just had to read ALL THE BOOKS from Frances Hardinge.
Wowza, I don’t even know where to start with this review. There is so much that is so excellent about A Face Like Glass, I hope I won’t miss anything of importance as there is so much to unpack.
A Face Like Glass is just like Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery: sophisticated without being pretentious or boring, thought-provoking and smart without being any less engaging, fast-paced and just plain fun. It features a strong (read: well-developed) female protagonist who has a superb character developing arc, as well as other equally well-developed female characters (be them allies or foes).
In the underground city of Caverna craftsmen create wondrous things to those who can afford like cheeses that can you make you see the stars and wines that allow you to forget your worst memories. To those who can’t enjoy these marvelous things – a sure sign of their status – all that is left is a life of drudgery. More than anything else though what separates the rich and poor is the faces they wear. For the people of Caverna, unlike those from the above-world, are born with blank faces and must learn how to make expressions – the richer the person, the more expressions they are able to learn and afford. These facial expressions are taught by Facesmiths who develop catalogues like the the very famous Tragedy Range (with face of utter sadness and despair).
Its own tagline is unbeatable in terms of summarizing the plot: “a stand-alone tale of deception, cheese-making, betrayal and strategic amnesia”. And that’s basically what happens in the book but against the backdrop of an incredibly thought-out Dystopian world. With a self-assuredness that we so rarely see these days in Dystopian YA, the world that Frances Hardinge created is a meritocracy of money and good relations which has degenerated completely into backstabbing aristocrats that vie for keeping their power. The lower class, the laborers that truly make Caverna work and run are thought to be happy with their lot and surely they do not need to be taught more faces because why would they need them. Thus, of course labourers are only taught a handful of faces to begin with, all of their repertoire part of a range of servile facial expressions. This of course, shows the artificiality of this society: the more faces you are to make, the more lies you can tell. On the other hand, if you don’t have a huge range of faces, how can you express your unhappiness if no one thinks you are even able to feel enought to warrant them?
Enter Neverfell. A young girl who was found living alone and with no memories in the tunnels of one Caverna’s Cheesemakers and became his apprentice. All her life Neverfell was told to wear a mask when in public and she has believed that she had a horrible, disfigured face. But to her utter surprise she finds out – after becoming involved in a Cheese-sale gone awry – that her face is not disfigured at all. What she finds out is worse: her face is capable of fluid, natural expressions that show exactly how she feels. Neverfell wears her thoughts and feelings on her face and that, in Caverna is the most dangerous thing of all. But there are people that definitely finds such a thing to be useful and that’s how Neverfell ends up becoming a pawn in a dangerous game of power.
The progression of this story follows Neverfell in a character arc that shows realistic, slow growth. For the first part of A Face Like Glass Neverfell is nothing but a pawn being moved from side to side and things happen to her. But as she starts to interact with people and learn about the true facade of life in Caverna, the more she grows, changes and becomes an active participant not only of her story but of everybody else’s in Caverna. Just like in this author’s previously mentioned books, her heroine is truly revolutionary. And the best thing about it? She is allowed to be and to remain different. And her growth and all the happiness and unhappiness that come with it show on her face. There is an amazing scene toward the ending that gave me goosebumps: when Neverfell finally learns the truth of how she ended in Caverna. That was dark, heartbreaking and utterly devastating.
A plot to overthrow the government, a thief with impossibly difficult targets, mapmakers capable of driving anyone who speaks to them to insanity over things like the twisted twistness of Caverna are also part of this fantastic story. It is a work of art, this book. It is beautifully written, it is clever and fun, it has social commentary both in obvious and subtle ways and a heroine who is totally awesome.
Frances Hardinge’s books are definitely on a class of their own. A Face Like Glass is simply superb and come December, you will most definitely see it on my top 10 of the year.
Everything that Ana said.
Unlike Ana, this is my first foray into the works of Frances Hardinge – but just like Ana’s experience with Fly by Night, I immediately fell head over heels in love with Hardinge’s work (and now I need to read ALL THE BOOKS from this fantastic author).
A Face Like Glass begins with whimsy, and, like a vein of deep blue green in the finest artisanal cheeses concocted by Master Grandible, this whimsy runs throughout the novel. Whimsy, with an undercurrent of the sinister and the dreadful. There’s something very Lewis Carroll-ian about this novel (complete with a white rabbit leading our heroine out of the cheesemaker’s home and into the strange world of Caverna), something similar in tone and skill to Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, something reminiscent of the darkness in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Like all of these truly spectacular, wonderful works of fiction for young readers, A Face Like Glass is written in unfalteringly whimsical style and tells a ridiculously imaginative story (free from cliches, message-making, or formulae). And like all of these works, beneath the charm there is something truly sinister and biting about A Face Like Glass – which we feel from the first time a character compares his granddaughter to a bottle of rare and powerful wine, as a tool to be used to protect the family.
In short, I loved A Face Like Glass. I loved it from the first, small human footprint left in a giant cheese, from the first mention of our heroine Neverfell and her great and terrible face that must be covered by a mask (though we aren’t told exactly why until much later in the book). I loved the world of Caverna, a subterranean empire where babies are born not knowing how to express emotions – these people must learn to craft “faces” and know when to adorn a face that matches the situation (and they will pay very, very well to learn such skill from facesmiths). In such a strange world, where every facial movement must be calculated and applied, the slightest misstep – sneezing, pointing accidentally with one’s pinky finger, looking into someone’s right or left eye, spilling a single drop of wine – means ostracism or death.
For young Neverfell, who is curious, guileless (because of her fluid face), and utterly different than those who have grown up in Caverna’s stilted – yes, even quite dystopian – society, these rules are incomprehensible and impossible to follow. So she gets into trouble. A whole lot of trouble. And she must figure out who she is, why she can’t remember her past, what her tenuous links to certain characters are, if she is ever to fully be herself and not just a little mad. Neverfell’s blend of naivete and steel (for there IS anger and frustration beneath her honest exterior) is fascinating, and, like Ana, I found myself amazed by not only Neverfell, but the other characters (particularly the female characters, like Zouelle and Madame Appeline).
Needless to say, I loved A Face Like Glass, and I’ve discovered a new fantastic, favorite author in Frances Hardinge. Absolutely recommended, and in the running for one of my top 10 books of the year, as well.
Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfect and a top 10 of 2012
Thea: 8 – Excellent, veering towards a 9
Reading next: Envy by Elizabeth Miles
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