Review: A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

Review: A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

A Face like Glass

By Frances Hardinge

MG, Fantasy

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…

oOo

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:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And you can learn more about the author, Frances Hardinge at her website: www.franceshardinge.com

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Book Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Book Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina and the Black Cloak By Robert Beatty

Fantasy, MG

“Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul.”

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity…before all of the children vanish one by one.

*~*~*

For some reason, the first twenty or so pages of this book were a little hard to get in to. But the book finds its stride about thirty pages in and it’s a quick page turner. This is a young middle grade novel, so some of the hints at Serafina’s true nature can feel somewhat heavy handed to adults, which might be why it didn’t grab my attention very well. But I think young readers will be just as intrigued at unraveling the mystery of Serafina as they will the terrifying specter Man in the Black Cloak.

Serafina is a feisty character and the Chief Rat Catcher of the Biltmore Estate, except no one knows she exists. Her pa is the chief handyman of the estate and they live in the basement in secret. Serafina has a complex inner life. She loves her pa but she wants more than anything to know who her mother was. I think what this book does best is illustrate that courage is not the absence of fear, but acknowledging it’s there and going forward anyway. Serafina is a smaller-than-average twelve year old girl facing down a supernatural foe and she is scared. She’s scared she’ll be caught, she’s scared her friend will be caught, she’s scared if the Man in the Black Cloak doesn’t catch her one of the Vanderbilt adults will catch her and put her pa in jail. But she goes on the hunt anyway, because leaving the Man in the Black Cloak to roam and harm others is worse than her other fears.

Towards the back end the book gets a little heavy handed again on morality and what makes one good and what makes one evil. I think that theme should have been introduced sooner since Serafina’s decision is an important turning point for her inner life and thoughts.

There’s also some folklore introduced near the ending, which again, I think should have been brought up sooner since it is a critical piece of information that ties the ending together. It’s not brought up by anyone until close to the 200 page mark. As much as Serafina reads, I think it could have been inserted much sooner when we were learning about some of her favorite books.

Young readers I think will enjoy the ending, the epic battle and how clever Serafina is, as well as the happy ending that leaves room for many more adventures. But as an adult reader I was put off by the winning-the-lottery levels of luck needed to make this ending so happy. I try to avoid spoilers in reviews, so I can’t say much else without giving things away, but the ending did leave me with one question: How? How did these characters just so happen to once again be in the same place at the same time?

Serafina and the Black Cloak is a good story for young readers if they want a Halloween vibe outside of October. For adult readers, I think it would make a good ‘car book’, that book you leave in the backseat to read when you have waiting time like at the doctor’s office or DMV.

 

You can find Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And Robert Beatty’s website: http://robert-beatty.com/