A Face Like Glass is Frances Hardinge's fifth novel, and I'm going to start this review by saying that much as I have loved every one of those novels, I think this might be her best. Shortly after finishing A Face Like Glass, I read Martin Lewis's review of Hardinge's previous book, Twilight Robbery (2011), and was struck by his discussion of its "true" and "sensible" but overly familiar moral: that appearances can be deceptive. This could also be said to be a moral of A Face Like Glass, but here it's developed with great complexity into something rather new, so that its apparent familiarity is itself deceptive. The reason I consider this so important is that I've come to see A Face Like Glass as a novel that does two things simultaneously: it shows us a protagonist learning to see things clearly, and it shows readers that the appearance of the very story they are reading may be just that, and that there may be other possible readings to it. The first of these is fairly common, especially in children's and teens' literature, but the second is far less so, at least when it's not done in a consciously clever, postmodern way.
Neverfell, the protagonist of A Face Like Glass, has a wonderfully ironic name. She's called this because she falls into a vat of Neverfell milk curds in the private tunnels of Master Grandible. Discovering that she can remember nothing about her parents or how she came to be hiding out in his tunnels, he decides to adopt her and make her his apprentice as a cheesemaker. After spending seven years with him, secluded and forced to wear a mask on the rare occasions that he has visitors, Neverfell follows a white rabbit out a hole into the wider world of Caverna—a Wonderland that is just as confusing but far more dangerous than Alice's. That first physical fall into the curds is only the start, as Neverfell falls into a dizzying number of situations throughout the book, most of them serious trouble, although she also falls out of trouble on occasion. She is particularly vulnerable because of her unique nature: in Caverna, for some unknown reason, all babies are born without the ability to make facial expressions. No matter how intensely they feel anger, fear, or delight, nothing shows on their faces naturally. From infancy they are taught Faces, fixed expressions to convey various emotions, and both the number and the type of Faces are determined by social standing—the poor are taught only a few expressions, while the rich learn far more in better nurseries, and as adults can hire Facesmiths to create custom expressions for them. Neverfell has the face like glass of the title, marking her quite clearly as an outsider, not born in Caverna. Her expressive face also places her in the horrific position of being absolutely incapable of lying in a society in which “lies were an art, and everybody was an artist, even young children” (p. 5).
There are similarities between Neverfell and Mosca Mye, the protagonist of Twilight Robbery and its preceding volume, Fly by Night (2005), that will be obvious to readers of the earlier books. Both are twelve-year-old orphan girls; both are taken up by lonely older men whose charitable motivations are mixed with more than a healthy dash of self-interest; both go unprepared into an unjust and dangerous world with skills and help that prove more useful than seems initially likely; and both become more significant to that world than anyone might have expected. Generalize those characteristics and they apply to a large number of children's and YA fantasies. Any appearance, however, that A Face Like Glass might be just by the numbers fantasy, or even a retread of Hardinge's earlier works, is certainly deceptive. Neverfell is a far more interesting and unique protagonist than that flattening list of characteristics she shares with Mosca suggests. She is impulsive and unpredictable, for a good reason: "poor Neverfell's overactive mind had coped with her lonely and cloistered life in the only way it could. It had gone a little mad to avoid going wholly mad" (p. 42). Her propensity to fall into trouble and to be used as a tool by powerful people in their endless plotting makes her sound passive, but that actually isn't the case. Her breathless careening through Caverna after she leaves Grandible's tunnels is without forethought, certainly, but when she finally concocts a plot of her own, with the help of the only person as unpredictable as she is, it's revolutionary. Literally. She uses the skill she has for making machines, and her tendency to think in different directions from everyone else, and manages to trick herself, so that she can turn her well-known inability to lie against her enemies. The brilliant convolution of having the protagonist deceive even herself is one of the ways in which A Face Like Glass delivers its message that appearances can be deceptive in startlingly unexpected ways.
The setting of A Face Like Glass also provides a venue for exploring the theme of appearances, through both its physical nature and the human society within it.The underground city of Caverna seems at first to be an essentially realistic backdrop with fantastic props and characters—a world of tunnels and caverns in which the laws of physics hold to a degree. This is Frances Hardinge, however, so of course they don't: Caverna is riddled with flaws, "those places where up and down secretly gave up their argument and shook hands, where compass points spun like a dervish and where space itself was twisted like a wrung-out flannel" (p. 402). Caverna may actually be sentient and able to change her structure to suit her own purposes, as Neverfell learns from the Cartographers. These map-makers are driven mad by the effort of twisting their minds to understand Caverna, and are in fact so mad that even talking to them is dangerous, as they start to make sense and then nothing else does—five minutes is the limit anyone can speak to them with any safety. The two scenes in which Neverfell meets with Cartographers, while unfortunately too long to quote, are absolute classic Hardinge. They're very funny, and the prose is so fluid and strong that it carries you along with Neverfell as she "folds up her mind" and starts to understand Caverna as the Cartographers do. Hardinge doesn't just tell you that Neverfell is experiencing this, she actually makes you feel the pang of loss as you’re snapped back from perhaps experiencing the beauty of "swimming down the glittering gem-veins in the mountain's rock" (pp. 402-3) with your mind alone.
Just as the true physical nature of Caverna only gradually becomes apparent, so also with the social structure.The leader of Caverna is the Grand Steward, 500 years old and in power since Caverna became a city-state. Somewhat atypically for fantasy, the society is a meritocracy: "The only true aristocracy of Caverna were the Craft, the makers of true delicacies that crossed the invisible line between the mind-blowing and the miraculous" (p. 16). However, this does not mean that it's a just or classless society in any way. The Craft class comes from powerful families, with assassinations and Machiavellian plotting the absolute norm, and the bottom of society, the drudges, are as oppressed as the peasantry of most medievalesque fantasies. In the first few bewildering days after Neverfell leaves Grandible's tunnels, she experiences Caverna as a prisoner, a protégée of one of the most powerful families, a prisoner again, the intended victim of several murder attempts, and a food taster for the Grand Steward. Given her secluded upbringing, and Master Grandible's reticence about his reasons for leaving Court and hiding himself away, it's unsurprising that Neverfell has difficulty coping with all the new situations in which she finds herself, let alone understanding the corruption of Caverna's social structure. Her instincts are always to care for others, regardless of their status, but when she finds herself in the Drudgery, the part of Caverna where the drudges live and work, she stares in fascination at workers doing hard, dangerous labor, and thinks that it's difficult to feel anything for them, "so dogged, placid and docile, a hundred heads all with the same Face" (p. 255). As she watches, however, a young girl drops something and is sent to pick it up, falling to her death in the process:
And then, quite suddenly, everything changed before [Neverfell's] eyes. The figures on the wall ceased to be ants and became people. Suddenly she could imagine the strain on their shoulders, their broken nails, the chill of spray, the stomach-twisting awareness of the hungry drop below. How had she been stupid enough to think that these people were not grief-stricken, or cold, or weary, or angry? They just did not have the Faces to show any of these things. They had always been denied such expressions, and now, at last, Neverfell was starting to understand why. (p. 257)
In this scene, at one and the same time, Hardinge has shown readers the process of looking past the appearance of things, shown us the cost of such clear sight, and further developed the significance of the drudges’ being deprived of their ability to express their feelings. The cost of seeing painful realities is shown through Neverfell, whose devastated understanding is displayed, like everything she feels, on her face, causing those who view her as a tool to see her as "broken." The drudges are denied their rightful expressions not only to allow them to be viewed as sub-human by the upper classes, but also to prevent them from forming any kind of effective rebellion against their oppressors because they are unable to "look at each other and see their own anger reflected, and know that their feeling was part of a greater tide" (p. 257). This is a flexible type of political fiction, as the drudges can be seen as analogous to the faceless masses of many societies in the past. Alternatively, they can be interpreted as a more immediate social commentary, and I'm probably not alone in hearing echoes of the rhetoric used today by so many political figures as they go after one underprivileged group or another.
Neverfell's new understanding of the drudges and her instinctive, impetuous good-heartedness come together when she is supposed to be hiding from her various enemies in a crèche in the Drudgery. She's completely unable to remain quiet and unnoticed while the infants are taught docile Faces, however, and she teaches them to pull a basic playground face, which she admits makes you look like "a deformed frog" (p. 382) but does allow the children to express anger. And the virtue of the face-pulling is that anyone can teach it, and anyone can learn it. Power to the people of the simplest sort. Yet again I think Hardinge has achieved something quite remarkable here, as she shows the heartbreaking effects of evil behavior, yet does it with humor and lightness of touch. When Neverfell's revolution begins, the drudges storming the palace gate are all pulling the face, and the image of hundreds of people looking like distorted frogs but collectively forming "the Face of revolution" (p. 450) is wonderful.
Finally, there's the plot itself. On my first read of the book, it felt a bit of a breathless rush from crisis to disaster to discovery to crisis. However, when I reread, and even more, worked on this review, I came to see it as differently plotted rather than in any way plotless. Near the end Neverfell is under great pressure and is distressed that she can't think straight, but realizes there’s no reason for her to try to, as that’s the way everyone else thinks. "That's why nobody expects me to think zigzag-hop. Which is what I do naturally" (p. 416). The book itself moves zigzag-hop as it playfully, joyfully shows us new perspectives. This continues right through to the very moving ending, which has such a lovely description of just the sky, the open air, that you feel as if you too are seeing them anew. But the ending doesn’t in fact bring that seeing anew to a close, as there's a brief epilogue that shows us the characters from an outside perspective, and offers a completely new way of viewing everything we've just read.
Even at this length, I haven't the space to do justice to many highly successful elements of the novel, that could each be given a full paragraph or two. For example, there's the Grand Steward and his left-brain/right-brain personalities, which he's developed over the years into two distinct persons, one of whom rules while the other sleeps. Or stalwart, cranky Erstwhile, the errand boy who always has Neverfell's back, giving out to her for her rashness all the while. Or the Facesmith whose belief that her art is sufficient justification for anything she may do to others is chillingly relevant to our world. There's also the theme of traps, which runs through the book, starting with the seemingly innocuous trap-lanterns that give light and oxygen to the inhabitants of Caverna, until Neverfell realizes that Caverna itself (or is that herself?) is like a huge trap-lantern, and is the worst kind of prison, the one that you don’t recognize as a prison, so don't fight to escape.
Returning to Martin Lewis's review of Twilight Robbery, there is just one part where I part company from him completely, and that's when he says that reading a book by Frances Hardinge makes him want to read an adult novel by her. While I might argue about children’s literature being "a form of constraint," this is not the place for that discussion. What I can say without hesitation is that A Face Like Glass leaves me wanting only more Frances Hardinge, as long as it's anything like this good.
Hallie O'Donovan lives in County Dublin with two daughters, two dogs, and a precarious stack of books at the end of the bed which will almost definitely take just one or two more.