A Face Like Glass
May 10th 2012
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. 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 ...
You may have noticed that I have been going on about this book a lot lately. Well, I say a lot, I mean I tweeted about it about twice. But that is because this book is probably the most inventive, interesting, fun, weird book that I've read for a while. The only book that I can sort of draw a comparison with is Chime by Franny Billingsley, not because they're alike, but because they're both sort of magical in an unusual way, though A Face Like Glass hasn't been as divisive with readers and is for a younger audience and isn't as confusing and difficult to get into.
I can hardly think of anything that I did not love about this book. The pace was slow at first, but deliciously slow in the way where the story and characters and world is being built delicately and masterfully. It took me a while to read, but only because I wanted to take the time to languish in the beautiful language, you know? It's been a while since I've read a book this amazingly well crafted and well written so I want to take some time to talk about it. And it's not that it's beautiful, although some passages truly are, it's just that there is such personality to it, you know? Kind of eccentric, but lovely. And there were times when I was reading it and Neverfell was talking or thinking about above ground outside of Caverna and it was like being able to see the sky through new eyes, you know? There is a way that Frances Hardinge has of describing things that make them seem new and fresh and exciting. I don't want to build it all up to much in the chance that someone reads this review and then reads the book and is disappointed, but this is genuinely how it made me feel, so, there.
All of the characters, too, were incredibly well written. I loved Neverfell, the girl with a face like glass, who can't in a world full of liars. Having spent most of her life living in Cheesemaster Grandible's tunnels making cheese, she knows little of Caverna and the complex political machinations and the lengths to which craftsmen will go to get power. She goes from being sort of innocent and not really knowing what's going on and having people manipulate her in the beginning, to taking initiative and action without ever losing sight of who she was. She just has a really great character arc and is a really great character and it was really great getting to see her start to actually take some control over what was happening to her in order to get to where she wanted. After her, Zouelle and the Grand Steward were my favourites, but the whole cast of characters were really interesting. I particularly loved the Grand Steward, who is so ancient and paranoid that he is literally always awake, splitting between Right Eye and Left Eye, having either his left or right side of his brain in control at one time. Like, it sounds weird but it is so crazy and fun to read about and it's really annoying that the one thing that I really want to talk about about this is a major spoiler for the book.
I know that I'm a bit like a broken record here, but I also loved Caverna and just all of the details about what it looked like, how it worked etc. I mean, it is some really excellent world building for a really interesting and creative world. Caverna is entirely underground, and all of the people born there are unable to make facial expressions. They have to learn them. And instead of the upper classes being based on wealth, they're all craftsmen, who can make cheeses that can help you see the future or wines that alter your memory (this happens a lot in the book. It's pretty clever) or facesmiths who design new facial expressions for those who can afford them. Again, it's a little bit strange, but it just kind of works and you get really drawn into this world and Neverfell's struggle and all of it's weird little quirks. And it's not a perfect book or anything, but it's just so different and strange and lovely that I couldn't help but adore it.
I wish I could say more about this, but I think I would just be majorly repeating myself. Anyway, A Face Like Glass is a peculiar book, and not one that I would have ever picked up on my own, but it was one of those unexpected gems that you sort of just fall in love with. I wish I could express myself better and do it proper justice, but I don't really know how. I do know that I will be reading more of Frances Hardinge's books in the future, though.