A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge was one of the books I had to read for the YAMG Book Challenge. It was the only book potentially destined to come my way in the brackets that I had not previously read. Why? Because it has not been published in the US yet. And this is a TRAGEDY.
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 ...
This is the story of Neverfell, a wide-eyed, sheltered, compassionate, cheerful, inquisitive girl who longs to explore and see the world outside the front door she has been locked behind as long as she can remember. Characters like this usually drive me insane. There is so much goodness in her. An unbelievable amount of goodness. I normally can't stand this, but Neverfell caught me and held me and made me love her. And even though I knew she was heading for a host of awful discoveries that were going to change and disillusion her, I found I didn't want them to change her. She is naive and far too trusting. There were moments when I wanted to jump in the book and knock her upside the head, but her naiveté is so genuine and believable. She has no reason for cynicism or distrust. She was never taught the possible cruelties of the world, and her world is cruel indeed. Where she is, no one can show the emotions they feel in their facial expressions. Except for Neverfell. People pay to learn how to make expressions and tailor them for the appropriateness of a moment, so they are never genuine. Except for Neverfell. She is the perfect tool and in constant danger as a result. She utterly refuses to see this and stumbles through life with a warm generosity that ordinarily makes me want to walk away from a character and never look back. In this case I wanted to shelter her and help her, meaning I was very much able to relate to one of the other characters in the story she comes across. One more cynical and not quite trustworthy. There is more to Neverfell though. Part of her curiosity is a result of her scientific mind. She is an amazingly talented mechanic. She is also fiercely determined and, it turns out, capable of being sneaky and ruthless herself which made me like her even more. (I know. I obviously have issues.) Everyone thinks she's mad, but really her mind just works differently. So much is made about her appearance, but it is really the way she thinks and feels that throw the people around her off. She is different. Other. And that means she is to be feared or used. Both at the same time occasionally.
Which brings me to the themes in the book. Through Neverfell and the people she comes in contact with, those who want to use her, those who want to protect her, and those who end up working with her, Hardinge paints a picture of a society we all can recognize because we live in it. Despite the world of Carverna being distinctly different from our own, it is exactly like our own. The twisted political maneuverings, the exploitation and intentional subjugation of those that can be forced to work, the falseness of society, and the power of belief in a system is brought out in every word on every page. But it is not at all forced. It is rendered through the contrast of Neverfell and the world around her, thorough her desire to do good and her ability to spark the same in others, through the details in the world building. It is all brilliantly woven together.
Then there is the writing, which is as top-notch as it gets. Beautiful imagery, evocative descriptions, and soul searing emotion are all on display. The world of Caverna is one I could feel, see, taste, and smell. The twistiness of the writing mirrors the twistiness of the world, leaving the reader slightly confused and light-headed in places, exactly as I imagine life in Caverna would be. I felt at times like I was being smothered under the weight of it all just as Neverfell was. I wanted her to get out from underneath that mountain and feel the sun and wind and rain. Hear birds sing. I expect good writing when I sit down with a Frances Hardinge novel, but feel she outdid my fairly high expectations with this one.
No, despite her best efforts she was a skinny, long-boned tangle of fidget and frisk, with feet that would not stay still, and elbows made to knock things off shelves.
There were many who called the Court a jungle, and with good reason. It had a jungle's lush and glittering beauty. The people who dwelt in it, in their turn, were not unlike jungle creatures...There are many dangers in the jungle, but perhaps the greatest is forgetting that one is not the only hunter, and that one is probably not the largest.
He felt a shock, as if her faith was a golden axe and had struck right through his dusty husk of a heart. The heart did not bleed, however, and in the next moment its dry fibres were closing and knitting back together again.
A Face Like Glass has a lot of political intrigue and complexity to it as well. It demands a lot of its readers, whether adults or children. And I love that. Books intended for a child audience who don't talk down to them or underestimate them are the best books there are. It never shies away from the harder more difficult truths it is trying to convey, but simply puts them in a package a child can see, understand, and accept. And running through all of the darkness and hard truths is brightness of hope. This book is everything that I love and it will have a place on my bookshelf forever.