I’ve never met a book by Ms Hardinge that I haven’t loved and, while this one is no exception, I don’t love it quite as much as some of her others. But that is not to detract from a novel that has luxuriant imagination, believably complex characters, glorious writing, and astonishingly rich world building.
A Face Like Glass is a return to the high fantasy of The Lost Prophecy and the Mosca Mye books, Fly by Night and Fly Trap. Caverna is a rampantly decadent underground society that crafts True Delicacies that “crossed the invisible line between the mind-blowing and the miraculous….wines that rewrote the subtle book of memory, cheeses that brought visions, spices that sharpened the senses, perfumes that ensnared the mind, and balms that slowed aging to a crawl.”
It has a somewhat traditional pyramid structure, with the ancient and paranoid Grand Steward not so benevolently dictating from the top, a swirling plotting aristocracy of masters of the Craft on the next level, and drudges (literally called drudges) at the bottom.
Here’s the twist, there’s been much said about how limiting language can limit expression of rebellion, but in the case of Caverna, it is facial expressions that are limited. Babies are born not knowing how to show their feelings on their faces and have to be taught. Drudges learn only a handful of compliant and contented expressions, thus limiting their ability to combine in anger and rebellion. The aristocracy have a much broader range of options, crafted for them by Facesmiths, such as Uncomprehending Fawn Before Hound and Violet Trembling in Sudden Shower, enabling them to be much more subtle and manipulative with their faces..
A newcomer arrives in this fin de siecle society who views it through new eyes. The outsider is 12 year-old Neverfell, and she has the human ability to show her feelings, and indeed finds it impossible to conceal them, much to the astonishment and sometimes revulsion of the Cavernans. She quickly becomes a pawn in the cynical plans of several people and it is only as she loses her naivete that she understands how ravaged Caverna is and what she must do to save herself and the innocents who have been unwittingly caught up in the court drama.
So why don’t I love it quite as much? Well, for me it sagged a little in the middle – the first time I’ve ever felt that in a Hardinge novel. While it isn’t as long as some of her other books, there was one point at which I thought that it was a bit of a slog, though it soon picked up. Secondly, Neverfell, our protagonist, lacks the edge and bite of other Hardinge heroines. She is like an adorable puppy, but I prefer my honey spliced with some vinegar, which I got with the leads of The Lie Tree, Cuckoo Song and the Mosca Mye books.
But, hey, this is still a Frances Hardinge novel which makes it head and shoulders above most books I’ve read this year.