It's been exactly a month since I've written that "rash" post. I really should stop writing posts about posting. Anyway, I've been sitting on a review that I wrote a while back but never posted here. And I figure why not post it here, even if it's kinda convoluted. I just...love...Frances Hardinge? Like I want to be her best friend and read everything she ever writes, and sort of brandish her books at people and smack them on their lil heads until they read them *cough.* We need more Hardinge love around here, is what I meant.
The main character of A FACE LIKE GLASS, Neverfell, lives and works in the cheese tunnels of
the underground city of Caverna. This city is home to masters of craft who make all sort of intricate and exquisite goods and wonders: wine, cheese, chocolate, and desserts. Some of these concoctions are so special they have magic properties. [*Cue Snape’s intonations from Potions Class voice here*]: there are cheeses that can bring back memories, wines that can make you forget, jellies imbued with the song of birds, and perfumes which sway your emotions.
Neverfell is pretty happy and innocent and lollops* all over the place and is clumsy and can’t keep still and is pretty likable because she is kind of like a puppy with too-big paws and a too-big tail. She's an apprentice to Grandible who is a Master cheesemaker, so she's got some serious skills with cheese. But she’s not allowed to go outside and has to wear a velvet mask on her face if she answers the door. There aren’t mirrors around, so she just assumes there’s something wrong with her face (such as hideousness)**. She longs to visit outside. She was discovered wandering around the cheese tunnels when she was 5 and that’s how she became an apprentice, but hasn’t left the tunnels since.
The city of Caverna is special in quite a few ways, and that includes its people: they’re born without the ability for fluid expression. Instead, they have to be taught Faces, so a whole system has arisen, a market if you will— sort of the equivalent of fashion or fads or 18th century wigs or etiquette— where Facemakers teach you appropriate faces for each occasion. It’s become an art, the arrangement of a face. Most people have a range of hundreds of faces to express what they’re feeling; they’re numbered and titled sort of like haikus would be. I imagined them to be the equivalent of a slideshow— a succession of still, rippling photos (if regular facial expressions are fluid and like a movie).
You can imagine the kind of deceit possible with these Faces, and the difficulty of knowing someone if they can wear a kindly face all the time when they’re really actually mean, or look innocent when they’re really guilty. Everyone is prey; everyone can manipulate. This idea of Faces fits in perfectly into the world of Caverna which is full of schemers who have lived far too long and are all vying for control and power in the deadly Court.
Of course, Neverfell manages to get out of the isolated cheese tunnels (in a Alice-in-Wonderland tradition, she follows a rabbit) and from then on, she’s irreparably out in the wild and the world. She realizes the reason she has to wear a mask and hasn’t been let outside: she’s the only one in Caverna who has a face with live expressions. Any one who looks at her instantly knows she doesn’t belong and is an oddity. She's also unable to lie with such an expressive face. Since she’s been so sheltered and is so completely trusting, she becomes the newest pawn in the wiles and games of the Court, peopled by the heads of clans (who make the True Goods like the wines and chocolates). It really is deadly: you can show up to a feast and expect a number of creative assassination attempts in between each sumptuous course, and that's all part of the fun.
The Grand Steward oversees this court. I'm mentioning the steward because I found his character to be especially imaginative in a book bursting full with fantastical things. In order to keep track of all the plots and schemes and rule, he has resorted to only keeping either his Left of Right part of his brain awake. One is logical, the other not. One side of his body goes to sleep and the other wakes, and such is the divide he has two different personalities and two different bureaucracies. Neverfell interests him—she interests many courtiers since she is a tool waiting to be used be anyone with dastardly designs on power, which happens to be a good portion of the Court.
We are awakened to the world Neverfell is living in just as she is. We learn the way the city functions on exploitative labor (just as children will one day realize how our world does too). We find out that people are not always what they seem, and are complex--just because they seem primarily one way or represent a particular way of being does not mean they are not capable of any number of unexpected, opposite things (their appearance as completely one thing is why they can do such opposite things).That sometimes what is decaying must be struck at in order to clear way for the new. Oh, and a lot of important things about friendship. All of which are things that kids should be thinking about or at least introduced to.
Also, funsie things like trap-lanterns (which light up the dark city, powered with the breaths of humans); a Kleptomancer (grand thief) prancing around the city and pulling off heists; and my favorite element of all: Cartographers who are so mad in their quest to map Caverna (which is a twisty, illogical, impossible maze of ever shifting, ever growing tunnels) they have bent their brains into a madness. You can only talk to them for five minutes because their madness is contagious and starts making sense; they are creating crazed, fragmented, love poetry and art for Caverna with their attempt to map and survey her completely and discuss her peculiar beauty.
Anyway, this is some smart and quality kid’s lit, and it’s really the best kind of stuff out there. I really especially loved how Neverfell transforms from a naive girl to— well— someone who can hold her own against people in the Court while still retaining her sweet personality.
I hope you got a sense of how inventive and strange and delightfully weird and whimsical this book is from me trying to say what it’s about; I haven’t read such an intricate and original book for a very long time indeed. Hardinge has playful style with her prose—you can really tell she loves words and that she’s having lots of fun with all her unusual combinations. You can feel her joy in her writing while the words teeter and majestically dance and cavort on the page and do little cartwheels once in while with their tongues stuck out.
I will say that this book has made me sure that she is my favorite living children’s fantasy author**. Physical copies of A Face Like Glass might be a little hard to find. But if you can get your hands on Fly By Night (her first book, set in an alternate 18th century England and which I like even more than this book, probably) you will be very happy indeed and then we can be happy knowing that we have both read a book, which unread, means your life is a little bit less full of eccentric lively lovely children’s fantasy, which is a sad thing indeed my friends.
* Yes, this is the book where I learned the wonderful word 'lollop.'
** I have to warn you, if excessive use of parentheses make your eyes bleed, this post is going to be unpleasant. Kinda not sorry though, since I'm a grammar rebel. *ducks*
***Diana Wynne Jones is my favorite children's author of all time, in case you've forgotten.****
****Not that I was expecting you to remember or anything! I love her though.
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