This was a book that I had been waiting for five years to be published in the US, and had hoped in vain that some family member would buy for me from the UK. I had already read and enjoyed Cuckoo Song, Fly by Night and Fly Trap. It was already on my list of the top 10 books I wanted to read for the first half of the year, when the publisher very kindly offered to send me a copy. After all that, I was a little worried that this book wouldn’t live up to the hype.
A Face like Glass by Frances Hardinge. Amulet Books, 2017. Originally published in the UK Macmillian, 2012.
Welcome to Caverna, the huge and ever-expanding underground city ruled by artisan politicians. Here you will find cheeses that will give you visions, wines that can erase or give back memories, puddings filled with the songs of a hundred birds…
In a secret passage in his own cheesemaking stronghold some years ago, Master Grandible the cheesemaker found a small girl floating face down in the curds. Seven years later, Neverfell has grown into a quite useful apprentice, good at designing devices to make the work easier. She always has to wear a mask when others come to the door, however. As the story opens, she learns that it’s not because she’s ugly but because instead of showing only a carefully learned Face appropriate to the situation, her face shows an ever-shifting array of expressions that (very uncomfortably for people used to such things) reveal everything she is thinking and feeling at the moment.
The lowest ranks of society learn only a few Faces – calm acceptance, eagerness to take orders – while the upper class will be trained in hundreds, and those at the very top will commission Facesmiths to design expressions especially for them. It is in the workshop of one of the most famous of Facesmiths that Neverfell finds herself after a complicated train of events beginning with a runaway rabbit. Madame Appeline has green eyes like Neverfell’s own, and a kindly expression that reminds Neverfell of the mother she can’t quite remember. She can’t quite believe the words of her only friend her age, the delivery boy Erstwhile, who told her that no one in the Court can be trusted, least of the Facesmiths, who know best of all how to craft an expression and when to use it.
Soon Neverfell has captured the attention of the whole Court, including both that of the Grand Steward and the Kleptomancer. She may be innocent, but she will have to pick things up very quickly if she’s to come away with her life. These words are spoken to a girl Neverfell meets outside Madame Appeline’s, and apply just as much to Neverfell as they do to Zouelle:
“You decided that you were ready to start meddling in the Great Game. I really hope you were right, Zouelle, because once you start playing it you can never leave.
You are in the game now, my dear. There is no going back.” (p 102)
This book absolutely delivered, with a twisty and fast-moving plot, delicious writing, detailed and carefully thought-out world-building that with details like living lights, that feed off of grubs and carbon dioxide, and serious looks at the hazards of living underground. And the characters! Neverfell, not sure where she belongs, trying so hard and needing to grow so quickly! And Erstwhile and Zouelle, both in tightly defined roles on opposite ends of the social spectrum, questioning those roles for the first time.
There was a discussion at Charlotte’s Library not too long ago on what makes a middle grade book appealing to adults. That’s a tricky question – but this book has it. A kid protagonist with concerns that are relevant to kids and with enough action and humor to hold their attention, but at the same time the complexity and high stakes that make a book that’s good for adults as well. I’m now facing the painful decision of whether to keep this book, which I’ve waited for so long and now adore, or to donate it to my children’s school library, always in need of good recent books.
I’ll leave you with one final quote from later in the book – out of context to minimize spoilers:
“He felt like a chess master who, two moves from achieving checkmate, suddenly sees a live kitten dropped into the middle of the board, scattering pieces.” (p 469)
A Face like Glass comes out May 9.