Review: 'A Face Like Glass', Frances Hardinge



★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

A Face Like Glass
Frances Hardinge
Ebook, aprox. 490 pages

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...

Why did I read this book?
A world where facial expressions need to be learned, otherwise people's faces are always blank? How brilliant is that? That's all it took to get me interested in the book. I think I might have seen it recommended somewhere... but at this point I really can't remember.

1. Plot
Once upon a time, in an underground city where people were naturally unable to show facial expressions, there was a girl named Neverfell whose face was incredibly expressive. She'd always lived with her adoptive father, an old cheesemaker, in a secluded part of this aforementioned underground city, but one day she found a way out of his tunnels... and escaped into the big bad world outside. Mind you, I'm using outside as a relative term - she escapes the cheesemaker's tunnels to find larger, public tunnels, that's what I mean. She meets friendly nobles and unfriendly nobles, wins the favor of half of The Grand Steward (it's... complicated, I'll get there in a second), becomes his favorite food taster, spends half the book running and hiding, and eventually decides to save the poor and the oppressed by making them climb a rope ladder up into the Overground. Note, the Overground really is outside. It's where you and I live, with sky and birds and sunlight.

The plot twists and turns and I will admit it was hard, at times, to tell friend from foe, but then it got too caught up in court politics and I lost interest. And maybe even that isn't completely true, because I don't think I ever truly gained interest. Let me tell you something. 31 users on Goodreads have shelved this book as "Childrens > Middle Grade", while 51 users have shelved it as "Young Adult", and either way, it’s definitely too young for me. The stakes are high, true, but the author has a way of plucking our protagonist from trouble in the most Deus Ex Machina of ways ("and at that precise moment someone walked in"), to a point where I stop caring because I know she'll make it out, no matter what happens. Now, I understand this is probably what writers want to give a younger target audience, a little bit of hope, a little bit of "there's always a way out"... but I'm an older, slightly cynical reader, and it didn't work for me.

2. Characters
Our protagonist, Neverfell, is really young and hopeful and clumsy, and I can see why she's headlining this book. I couldn't empathise with her, though, because I kept snapping out of the story due to her jumbled thoughts. In a way, I felt like her "strangeness" and "craziness" were nothing but excuses to have Neverfell do these incredible deductions that make no sense in context, but are needed to move the plot along.

There are many other relevant characters, but I won’t get into them. What I will say, though, is that, in general, I didn't think there was much character development. The characters didn’t really grow throughout the book, except when the plot needed them to reveal themselves as hidden villains or allies – then, they’d sort of “snap” and become a different person altogether.

There is an honorable mention, though, for The Grand Steward of Caverna. In Frances Hardinge's own words, from her website, "the two halves of his brain take it in turn to sleep, so that one of them is always awake [...] one is cold, curt and does not suffer fools gladly, while the other is mute and unpredictable, communicating only in gestures". This, in my opinion, was all it took to create one of the most interesting, not to mention tragic, characters I've read in a while. It's bad enough when two halves of the brain work different shifts - it gets worse when they start thinking of each other as enemies.

3. Setting/worldbuilding
The setting is, by far, the best thing about this book. Hardinge explores various implications of the whole expressions-must-be-taught scenario, from the difficulties in everyday communication (you can’t tell what people are thinking, you’re never sure they’re not lying to you, you may not have the right face to portray what you’re feeling so you’ll have to approximate with an expression that may not be quite right) to the classist implications of not teaching the exploited workers any unhappy faces (since their expressions are all neutral, they’re unable to show anger or exhaustion, which in turn prompts the nobles to treat them as robots and push them further).

I also liked the magical side of Caverna – the underground city is very much part of the real world you and I live in, but you see, people have discovered some sort of magic that allows them to create True Delicacies. These include wines able to erase or recover memories, cheeses that bring visions of the future, and perfumes that influence social interactions. There is a whole range of magical artifacts that can be used to further the plot, and Hardinge makes use of all of them.

4. Writing style
I underlined maybe one passage, so style-wise, we can say I found this book unremarkable - but again, considering the target audience, I think it does the job just fine. The first half could have been shortened, though. As is, it’s too slow to build up, which then leaves only the second half to develop and wrap up the whole plot. A little more balance would have been great.

Long story short...
I did not dislike this book. It lacks the sharp edges and grey moralities that make me boost ratings around here, but it's not fair to demand that from a book that's somewhere between middle grade and YA. Were I a few years younger, perhaps ten years younger, I think I would have loved this – but alas, today, it will only get three stars.

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