The underground city of Caverna is known for two things: first for the magical delicacies they create (wines that erase specific memories, perfume that convinces you to trust the wearer, etc), and second for their doll-like faces. Babies born in Caverna have no facial expressions. They must learn them, and Facesmiths – those who create and teach Faces – are a special kind of elite. But when an overground girl of five turns up unexpectedly in a vat of curds in the cheesemaster’s tunnels, everything changes. Neverfell’s face moves on its own, and so she must be kept hidden from the rest of Caverna or else risk being used as a pawn in deadly court scheming. Only no one can tell this growing child why she’s hidden away, lest the knowledge appear in her open, guileless expressions.
Let me start by saying that this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Because of the stressful situation my family is currently in, it took nearly a month to get time to read the entire book. However, the slow read was perfect for me right now. Hardinge puts together an amazingly well-developed world. Though the narrative shifts between characters, it stays primarily with Neverfell, aged twelve for most of the book. Because of Neverfell’s ignorant viewpoint, the reader gets to experience the world firsthand, and in a way, come of age with her. We are never quite so naive and trusting as she is to those around her – her maturity is stunted due to her limited knowledge and interactions with others – but we get to experience her disillusionment and growth alongside her.
This book is marked as YA at my library but I’d venture to say that it could be read YA or adult. Many of the characters are very complex, especially those who would count as the more positive characters. Everyone has been touched by Caverna’s politics and machinations. There were many thematic elements in common with classic-style dystopia (think 1984 rather than Divergent) focusing on stratification of the poor and the rich (a timely subject in today’s world, I think). The book also focused on growing up vs growing wiser, on the manipulation of emotion through masks, on the bonds of family both natural and acquired, on the way missing/manipulated memories affect behavior, and on the effects of living so long that life becomes virtually meaningless. Two of the hallmarks I often see in YA were absent: There was no romance whatsoever, and while the magic was an integral part of this society, the book was not about the magic.
A Face Like Glass is a standalone novel with an ending both hopeful and sad. Actually, I can say “hopeful and sad” sum up much of the book, and perfectly described one of my favorite exchanges of dialogue. Because this is a minor spoiler, I’ll white it out, but the spoiler is a very tiny one, so feel free to highlight to read:
“We are used to danger,” the faceless voice assured her. “It comes with our job. … We look out for our own because nobody else will. Do you know how many courtiers have been willing to risk their lives for one of us?”
“No. How many?”
“One,” came the answer. “Precisely one in five hundred years.”
The sedan door opened. Pulling off her goggles, Neverfell…turned toward the man who had been speaking with her…and found herself looking into the face of the manservant she had saved at her first banquet.
I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s beautiful.