In the underground city of Caverna the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare. They create 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. 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 …
I positively adored this wondrous tale that has a lot to love and be fascinated by. I know I keep saying this, but it’s true – middle grade fantasy is some of the most imaginative fantasy on the market and is often extremely complex. A Face Like Glass is a prime example. It contains serious and though provoking themes, is set in a richly imagined land and is gorgeously written.
Caverna is a sentient underground world who invokes madness in the minds of those who try to uncover her secrets. Caverna contains magic of a edible variety. There are wines that play with memory, cheeses that bring on visions and deserts that sing the loveliest music. More interestingly, in Caverna children are born without facial expressions and their emotions never show on their faces. Instead, expressions are faked and, much like striking a pose, are frozen on the wearer’s face until they choose a new one. Imagine losing such an important part of conversation and never being able to tell the emotions of those around you? Hardinge extends this idea to the fullest and it is one main of the threads of the story. It ties into the deceitfulness of the Court and into the divide between the upper class and the drudges (the working class).
For any individual of status in our world, life is a dangerous game. They must be careful what they say, and how they say it, where they go and who they meet, what they wear and who they marry so as not to fall from grace. In Caverna however, the wrong hand gesture can kill someone, and the wrong word can get you killed. Each family wants to have more power and more influence, and lie and cheat and murder their way to the top. Going to Court becomes a deadly strategy game with alliances and assassins and poisons. And remember, you can put of the right facial expression for the job.
Enter Neverfell. A naive, restless girl who is slightly mad, and whose facial expressions are directly linked to her emotions. It is through her eyes that we experience the wonders of Caverna and also the horrors that lie just beneath the surface. We follow her on a quest to discover the truth about where she came from and why she is different. Neverfell’s heart is still above ground and it is maddening to be trapped underground, yearning for the sun. She is slightly off kilter, just a little bit odder that the average Cavernan, and it is her ability to think in hops and bounds ends up saving the day on numerous occasions. It also makes her a lovable and interesting narrator. The Kleptomancer was also a favourite character who understood the genius of not thinking like everyone else and the power of being different.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot because, like a map folded into an origami crane, it is only once the entire piece of paper is unfolded that the map can be read. Otherwise, distances are distorted and roads will be missing, hidden in the folds. There are twists upon twists, right up to the final page. And still, the map is never fully unfolded and Caverna remains a mystery.
A Face Like Glass is quite dark and disturbing, but deliciously good. Highly recommended.