A Face Like Glass

“She had drunk deep of the Truth, and now it could not be flushed out of her system with bitter cordials, or washed from her skin, or picked out of her hair.”

Frances Hardinge

A Face Like Glass was recommended, and subsequently waved at me with some force, by the Tolkien Society Lembas Rep, as “a lovely story”.

And lovely it is, indeed. It’s a tale of Caverna, a sprawling underground city where a piece of cheese can make your head explode, a glass of wine can make you forget years of your life – and where faces lie. The people of Caverna have no natural facial expressions: they must be learned, bought from Facesmiths at a price. And into this gilded, deceptive world falls Neverfell, a girl whose face is like glass. She does not need to learn Faces; she has them already, and every thought that crosses her mind shows in her face. In this city where deception is paramount to survival, Neverfell cannot lie.

Possibly the best thing about A Face Like Glass is its setting. The city of Caverna is fascinatingly magical and strange, a place of madness and colour with a ribbon of darkness running throughout, a place where geography doesn’t work, where map-making can drive you insane, where carnivorous plants provide light, where spilling a glass of wine can be a death sentence. It’s awesome, and at the same time immensely dystopian: it’s served by an underclass of drudges who don’t have the facial expressions to rebel, in a clever twist of authoritarianism that, unfortunately, doesn’t get fully explored.

Neverfell, too, is a breath of fresh air in a heroine: often clumsy, talkative without being eloquent, naive, fiercely honest and fiercely loyal. In other words, childish. It’s nice to see a YA heroine who actually acts her age for once. Her supporting characters, though less well drawn, are all fascinatingly, endearingly strange: think the Edge Chronicles, with all of those larger-than-life, slightly comedic but immensely vital people. Also the Kleptomancer, the city’s greatest thief, is singularly awesome.

Oh, and Hardinge’s prose! It’s playful and hypnotic and fairy-tale-ish and, much like the novel’s twisty, multilayered plot, is full of corkscrew twists and wordplay:

Wicked glints slunk along the iron angles of the mangled mangle.

Everything in this world is brilliantly alive, including the city itself. Like I said, the plot shifts continually: things you thought you knew are revealed to be false, madness becomes sane, dark becomes light. It’s admirably well managed for such a convoluted story, with so many threads that might have been dropped. Even the ending is satisfactorily conclusive, and appropriately gruesome.

So, yes. A Face Like Glass is, indeed, a lovely story, a story for those who want (as I did) to lose themselves in a world that is wholly alien and wholly strange and wholly wonderful, just for a while.

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