A Face Like Glass
Author: Frances Hardinge
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
At one point, Hardinge writes this (of a short boat trip): "..skulled across to the island"? Doesn't she mean 'sculled'? That's the problem with a novel like this - you can never tell what she really meant! Read on for the weird world of Hardinge!
There's nothing like finding a new author who gets it, and enjoying the thrill of discovering a new world and new characters to love. In A Face Like Glass we get all of this. I've read nothing of Hardinge's before, although her name seems familiar - like I've read of her or had her on the back burner, but just never got around to exploring her oeuvre. I'm barely a quarter into this novel as I start posting this review, but if it continues to the end in the same vein that it began, I'm confident that my ignorance of her repertoire is about to undergo a powerful sea-change for the better!
A Face Like Glass is the tale of Neverfell, a girl in her mid teens who, seven years before, inexplicably appeared in the Neverfell curds of an underground cheese-maker. He's not underground in the sense of being subversive, but in the sense that his entire society is resident in a rat's nest of underground tunnels known as Caverna. Cheese Master Grandible adopts Neverfell as his assistant, but he's a tough taskmaster. He's excruciatingly precise in his requirements, which is all to the good because a cheese, in this world, which is not raised properly can turn out to be a Frankenstein monster. Grandible's cheeses have the power to influence and change people's minds, just as other master crafts-people can create perfumes and wines which have similar effects, and all of these products have personalities just like people.
But that isn’t even the most interesting thing about Caverna. No. The most interesting aspect of Cavernan life is that no one can express emotion. Children must be taught how to show their emotions on their face, which means that none of them is actually honestly feeling the emotion which their face is showing. Yes, every face in Caverna hides a lie. That is, until Neverfell shows up. Neverfell is precisely the opposite: she cannot hide her emotions; one after another parades across her visage, each of them a shameless exhibitionist, in dizzyingly rapid succession.
It’s illegal to harbor such a creature, and Grandible, once a member of the elite Cavernan royal court, but now in self-imposed exile, knows this only too well, so why does he foster Neverfell for seven long years, teaching her the fine art of exotic cheese-making as though she were his own daughter?
Neverfell longs to explore the tunnels outside of Grandible's own highly secretive and securely-barred section of the tunnels, but she's forbidden. She's also forced to wear as mask to prevent the occasional rare, visiting customer from learning of Neverfell's disfigurement. But of course this cannot last! In a nod to Lewis Carroll, Neverfell chases a rabbit out of her tunnels and into the main thoroughfares of Caverna. She ends up falling in with a group of her peers who are going to be tested to see if they can join the entourage of well-known Facesmith Madame Vesperta Appeline. This is where is all starts to go south (not that Caverna actually has a south).
Neverfell is exposed. Turned in to the authorities, she's on the verge of being sentenced to death. Indeed, an unknown assailant tries to kill her even while she's in prison. Finally a savior appears in the form of Caverna's leading vintner, Maxim Childersin, who effectively buys Neverfell. He seems perfectly fine, but there's a disturbing undercurrent of potential malice about him. When he introduces Neverfell at court, she feels hopelessly hog-tied by its endless nit-picking rules of etiquette and conduct. She feels like she would be much more at home on the separated island of Caverna's Cartographer guests - all of them insane from trying to map Caverna's deranged tunnel system.
Zouelle, Neverfell's peer from the vintner family explains that their madness is contagious; anyone who talks to them will also go mad rather quickly. Here's one of the best quotes from a novel which has more than its fair share of thigh-slapping quotes: "…if you talk to them long enough, you start to understand them, and then after a short while you don’t really understand anything else. You run off to be a Cartographer and, next thing you know, you're bat-squeaking." I have nothing with which to follow a line like that.
Like a tightly coiled spring, Neverfell struggles to contain her energy and curiosity whilst partaking of the endless array of bizarre courses at dinner, until she can’t help herself but react, knee-jerk fashion, coming to the aid of a marginally clumsy waiter whose life is at risk for no other reason than that he spilled the tiniest drop of a very feisty wine onto the white table-cloth. Neverfell purposefully spills her own wine to hide the waiter's spill, and save him, and suddenly her world explodes. The family which "adopted" her is now ruined, and their in-fighting provides Neverfell a chance to escape with Zouelle in tow. Neverfell feels obligated to rescued her to prevent her paying for Neverfell's inexcusable faux pas. In true heroic fashion, she decides that the only way to fix this disaster is to visit the Grand Steward himself in his palace and to take full responsibility for everything which happened at the banquet.
So Neverfell is called before the Grand Steward, who turned out to be yet another in the feast of novelties which is this novel. He's ancient and bored out of his gourd having lived so long, which is why Neverfell is of interest. He's also quite literally in two minds about everything. His left brain never knows what his right brain is doing - not hardly. When the one side is awake, the opposite side is asleep, for the most part, so each time one half wakes up, it’s like someone else took over his life for a while and did things he had not anticipated. Neverfell meets the left side first, and makes sufficient impression that she's hired as a food taster to replace the one who died recently, but her first real experience with him is with the right side.
She must accompany "Mr Right" as he seeks to discern who the Kleptomancer is, and with Neverfell's help, he finally lays a trap. The idea is that the Kleptomancer will be unable to resist an open challenge to steal the Grand Steward's latest wonder from his cabinet of curiosities, which happens to be a stuffed giraffe, but the way the challenge is worded, I'm convinced that the Kleptomancer will consider the grand Steward's latest treasure to be Neverfell herself who, it turns out, interrupted the Kleptomancer's theft of the banquet cheese, the Stackfalter Sturton, by her spilling of the wine, resulting in the cheese being called to the table earlier than it ought to have been.
Once ensconced in the royal food taster's quarters, Neverfell, of course, wishes to be out and about, so she goes out to explore the palace environs outside of the taster's quarters, and barely escapes being taken prisoner by one of the court hangers on. What she does not realize is that the monkey who pulled out some of her hair wasn't being mischievous, it was recovering a hair sample for another interested party who wishes to track Neverfell>
Having learned more of Madame Appeline, Neverfell summons Zouelle to court to ask her some questions about her discoveries, and we learn that Zouelle, acting for her uncle, also has machinations in play which directly involve Neverfell. Is there no one on her side? Apparently not, because I was right about the Kleptomancer. Oddly enough he kidnaps her on the same night an assassin tries to exterminate her, thereby saving her life. She in turn escapes the Kleptomancer and ends up getting an unexpected education on the lowest levels of Caverna where the slave labor population - those robbed of all but the minimum facial expressions - are forced to drudge for the benefit of the upper classes. The sad thing here is that the drudges are forced to lie just like the upper classes. The only difference is that the drudges do not choose to lie. They're forced to, in that they have only one face to show, and it’s never one which they would show by choice, since they have no choice in their lives.
When Neverfell returns topside, she returns by a means of her own invention and she's furious - so furious that she upsets the Grand Steward and this in turn, nets her the very visit to Madame Appeline that she's been after all along, although the outcome of this is less than she sought. This fails, ultimately, because there is scheming going on here which she's failed to even imagine, let alone foresee. And I think that's plenty of spoilers!
This novel continues to get better and better even as you kinda feel you know where it's going - and go there it does in grandly unexpected style. I'm now planning on hunting down every single one of Hardinge's other novels. I can't recommend this novel highly enough. Oh, I guess I just did! W O R T H Y !!!!