A Face like Glass
By Frances Hardinge
In the underground city of Caverna, in virtual darkness, the world’s most skilled craftsmen create the extraordinary—wines that remove memories; cheeses that bring on visions; and perfumes that convince people to trust the wearer, even as he is slitting their throats. Like their goods, the people of Caverna appear normal. But their faces show no emotion; they are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned, and only the famous Facesmiths can teach someone the art of displaying joy, despair, fear—or how to fake them.
Into this shadowed and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a girl with no memory of her past, and a face so terrifying that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell’s expressions are as varied and dynamic as those of the most skilled Facesmiths—and real. That makes her very dangerous indeed…
This story reminded me a great deal of Alice in Wonderland with its dark whimsy and strange foods that alter the mind and reality. Neverfell is apprentice to the reclusive cheesemaster, Grandible and spends seven years of her life locked away in his tunnels helping him craft cheeses and keeping her face hidden behind a mask on the rare occasion someone stops by.
She escapes one day—chasing a white rabbit no less—and the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. She’s an Outsider. The people of Caverna never leave their subterranean burrows, but they do trade with other people who live in the above ground. But they themselves never leave because they think the sun will scorch their skin off. It’s illegal for Caverna people to bring Outsiders in because they believe they carry diseases. So Neverfell is promptly caught and thrown in the dungeon where someone immediately tries to murder her.
It’s a really rough day.
From there, she’s thrust into a spiderweb of political alliances, lies, murder, and more assassination attempts. There’s a great deal of political intrigue in here as well which is complex enough to keep older readers interested but simplified in explanation so it remains accessible to younger readers.
I’m on the fence as to whether or not I like Neverfell. She grows up with no memory of her early life and extremely sheltered in Grandible’s tunnels so the first time she gets out she’s like a baby chick and imprints on the first people she sees. She decides this girl, Zouelle, is her friend because she likes that she’s pretty and graceful and an eloquent speaker. Again, she’s super sheltered and it’s clear from the way Zouelle speaks to her that Neverfell is another playing piece in her complex game, but Neverfell doesn’t see it.
Neverfell spends the first two thirds of the book as other people’s pawns in one way or another, but she’s never passive. The trouble she gets into is mostly her doing it or her trying to make it better, so I can’t complain there. But she takes everyone at face value, even though she knows people are taught different faces and can use whatever face they want whenever they want. She still believes what they say, unerringly. And that—as someone whose cynicism increases exponentially every year—is really annoying.
But I get what Frances is doing; the learning curve Neverfell has of who she can trust and how to separate what someone’s face says versus who they are. As you read, you’re learning with Neverfell and that’s a pretty neat thing to do. Her wide-eyed naivete is still frustrating, but I can appreciate the reason why it’s done.
It seemed to me this book had three endings. Every time we reached a point where the storyline could neatly resolve I looked and realized I still had a hundred pages left. I think the front third of the book should have been loaded a little heavier with the different problems that needed to be resolved so that it makes sense for the book to keep going even when there’s a natural ending point.
If you like Alice in Wonderland then I think you’ll enjoy A Face like Glass. The world building is excellent and so subtle you don’t question when the floor becomes the ceiling or vise versa. It’s a very well written novel and trusts young readers with a fairly complex web of political intrigue and alliances which I really enjoyed.
You can find A Face like Glass at:
And you can learn more about the author, Frances Hardinge at her website: www.franceshardinge.com