YA Weekend: A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade/ Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Amulet Books (May 9, 2017)
Length: 489 pages
Now I really wish I had read this book sooner, because in a word, it’s amazing. Sitting in that much-needed place between Middle Grade and Young Adult, A Face Like Glass is a coming-of-age novel about a younger protagonist, but the challenges she must deal with are no less difficult or complex.
Our protagonist Neverfell was just a child when she was found practically half-drowned in a vat of curds by Master Grandible, Caverna’s foremost maker of fine, magical cheeses. But as soon as the cheesemaker cleaned off the little girl and looked at her face, he could tell something was seriously wrong. From that moment on, he has instructed Neverfell to always wear a mask in public, though he refuses to tell her the real reason why, letting her believe she is hideous and disfigured.
For years afterward, Neverfell trains with Grandible as his apprentice, learning all about the ways of Caverna and cheese-making since she herself has no memory of who she was or where she came from. Caverna, as its name would suggest, is a huge underground city made up of tunnels. Skilled craftsmen like Grandible create all sorts of things with fantastical properties to sell to the court, like cheeses that can bring on wondrous visions, perfumes that can influence the emotions of others, wines that can make you forget your worst memories, and much more.
Then there are also the special artisans called Facesmiths, for unlike the people who live in the world above, citizens of Caverna are born with blank faces and no natural instinct to form facial expressions. This is where a Facesmith comes in, developing and teaching new expressions to those who can afford his or her services. The richer you are the more facial expressions you can learn, while the poor, like the laborers and drudges, are only taught a few to get them through a life of servitude.
Because so much can be gleaned about your social status from the number of faces you can wear, this leads to much demand for Facesmiths among the court, and likewise, a Facesmith who can develop the most unique catalogues will also earn a lot of prestige. So when Madame Appeline, one of Caverna’s most prominent and skilled Facesmiths suddenly shows up at Master Grandible’s one day, Neverfell sees the visit as a chance to change her own fate. Appeline is in need of a favor from Grandible, but in spite of the cheesemaker’s initial refusal, Neverfell is convinced that she can make her master change his mind, unaware that she is meddling in dangerous matters she doesn’t understand.
Everything about this novel is pure imagination and magic, and needless to say, I loved every moment. While there is a strong emphasis on the whimsical, I thought it was applied in just the right amount, without becoming overly silly or distracting. Every page was filled with new and interesting ideas, from the oddly precise sleep cycles that citizens of Caverna must keep due to living in the tunnels to the absurd rules of etiquette that the city elites must follow. This is one strange world, where society is strongly shaped by the fact that its people are born with the inability to form facial expressions naturally. Considering the huge range of emotions that that can be expressed through facial cues, just thinking about how every single little facial movement has to be slowly and painfully measured and applied…well, the consequences of it are staggering. One tiny miscalculation or a sudden muscle tic can convey a different meaning and cause a scandal at best, or lead to persecution and even punishment by death at worst.
I was also completely taken with Frances Hardinge’s writing, which is so beautiful and clever. I imagine she faced a lot of challenges for a story like this—after all, how do you even begin to put yourself into the shoes of a character who has little understanding of the relationship between emotions and expressions? Somehow though, Hardinge made it work. Her descriptions are careful but also creative, utilizing unconventional methods to paint a picture of the way someone looks or to convey how they feel. The story is also fast-paced and addictive, and with surprises waiting at every turn, I can’t say there was ever a moment where I felt bored.
Perhaps most importantly, A Face Like Glass has something I don’t often find in a lot of YA and MG books—rich imagination and a shockingly original and unpredictable storyline, refreshingly light on cliché or stereotypes. Consider me a fan. This may be my first book by Frances Hardinge, but you can definitely count on me to read more!