In This Book, Craftsmanship Is a Matter of Life or Death
In the underground city of Caverna, the setting of Frances Hardinge’s novel A Face Like Glass, a sip of wine can rewrite memories, a bite of cheese can spark visions, and certain perfumes make the wearer literally irresistible. Its citizens’ facial expressions, too, are carefully and expensively crafted and taught by experts, and the ability to display the perfect Face for any occasion is more than just a mark of status: it’s a matter of survival.
Twelve-year-old foundling Neverfell is different. Her own face reveals her true thoughts and feelings, making her both vulnerable and valuable to people much more powerful than she is. Apprenticed to a reclusive cheesemaker, she has little knowledge of life outside the tunnels that they call home, until an impulsive decision propels her into the beautiful, dangerous city and into the middle of a carefully planned conspiracy involving a clever and formidable wine-making family, a centuries-old ruler whose mind is divided against itself, an underclass of laborers whose range of Faces is limited in order to prevent rebellion, and at least one figure from her own forgotten past. But Neverfell’s involvement will change Caverna in ways that nobody could have planned.
Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2012, A Face Like Glass was released in the United States earlier in 2017, and has become one of my favorite Young Adult novels. It bursts with vivid images and ideas, from lavishly and sometimes bizarrely described foods, to a group of mapmakers whose twisted way of seeing the world warps the mind of anybody who listens to them for too long, to the precise machinations of court etiquette and political intrigue. It also incorporates a murder mystery with a social conscience, as well as themes of memory, identity, power, and the cost of concealed secrets and a concealed world. The cast of characters, both sympathetic and villainous, are convincingly drawn, and Neverfell’s growth from an innocent, overly trusting pawn, to a resourceful young woman with agency and integrity, is believable and a joy to read. Just be careful not to anger the cheese.
I would recommend A Face Like Glass to fans of inventive fantasy world-building, especially readers who enjoyed Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Like Caverna itself, Hardinge’s novel offers dangers and delights at every turn. Just be careful not to anger the cheese.