Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: A Face Like Glass (2012) by Frances Hardinge

So how do I describe Caverna, the underground city that`s one of the major characters in this young adult fantasy novel, in a way that doesn`t make it sound completely preposterous? Well, here goes: imagine the Most Serene Republic of Venice circa 1750, but ruled by the Borgias at their Machiavellian, poisoning peak,  and with an economy based around the production of magical and hallucinogenic luxury goods, chiefly wines and cheeses. Also, the inhabitants of this world can only use a limited variety of facial expressions. Drudges, who make up the proletariat, are only allowed one bland, dutiful expression. Members of the Court and Craftsmen classes (aristos to you and me) can "buy" a wide variety of facial expressions. And no one, whether weak or powerful, is allowed (or wants) to go up to the "overground". Did I forget to mention the light-emitting man-eating plants, or the Cartographers who only need to chat with a person to drive them mad? They're in here, too.

It's clear that author Hardinge decided to let her imagination off its leash and only got it back after it had assaulted some neighbours, chased things up trees, and made a mess on the carpet. And it's a good thing she did. There are linear miles of shelving filled with YA books that are so high concept they can make your nose bleed just by reading the blurbs on the back covers. Almost all of them are shite because the creativity ends with the basic concept. A Face Like Glass delivers the goods. The writing is far, far above average for this genre, at times reaching a Geraldine McCaughrean level of excellence. The tough part with this kind of imaginative story is the world-building, and Hardinge manages this with ease. She doesn't bludgeon the reader with details or elaborate background info, instead she parcels out descriptions of Caverna as they're discovered by her protagonist, a young girl named Neverfell. The quality of the world-building can be judged by fact that the workings and ecology of Caverna are just as interesting as the machinations of the lead characters. In many ways this novel is the YA equivalent to Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan and Gormenghast in its creation of a self-enclosed world populated by eccentrics and obsessed with form and ceremony.

Neverfell is an orphan who mysteriously appears in Caverna at the age of five and is raised in secret by Grandible, a master cheesemaker. The reason for the secrecy is that Neverfell, unlike any other resident of the underworld, has no control over her facial expressions: she shows every emotion that occurs to her as it happens. As usually happens to orphans in stories like this, Neverfell draws the attention of some powerful and dangerous people. From there on she becomes a pawn and a conspirator in a struggle for control of Caverna. The plotting is tight and energetic, with lots of twists, and we even get a Spartacus-like uprising by the Drudges.

If I have any complaint about this novel it's that the concept of people having a set number of facial expressions to go through life with is fascinating, but the execution of it is weak. A lot of time is spent describing this aspect of Caverna society, but I just didn't feel that the idea was worked out enough to make seem believable, even in the context of a fantasy novel. Fortunately, Hardinge fleshes out her other imaginative concepts with originality, humour and a lot of energy.

Related posts:

Book Review: Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake 

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