Frances Hardinge is rumoured to be made “entirely of velvet”, or so her biography would have us believe. A mysteriously “unphotographable” author who wears a black hat. She seems to covet a certain strangeness, a sense of mystery that shrouds both her writing and herself.
Well if that’s what it takes to write stories as well as she does, then I’m all for it.
Once again on reading Hardinge, I am struck that the age-old question — where do you get your ideas? — is entirely appropriate. There are familiar motifs in her work and yet there are also other ideas that leap from the page defying normality and expectation. I felt this in Cuckoo Song from the moment the young protagonist swallowed her own doll and I felt it in A Face Like Glass (2012) too. It’s unusual and it’s exciting.
Seven years ago in the underground city of Caverna, cheese-master Grandible, purveyor of the finest mind-altering cheeses, pulled a scrappy, red-headed girl from the curds and decided to name her Neverfell. Choosing to keep her and raise her as his apprentice he subjected her to one condition — no one else must ever see her face. Seven years later and Neverfell is a lively, twitchy wisp of a girl whose belief that she must be too ugly to be seen cannot dull her unending enthusiasm and bright curiosity. But the world Neverfell lives in is about to wake up to her presence and her face, forever hidden, is about to be revealed.
For there is something unusual about the people of Caverna. In one crucial way they are not like the mysterious people on the “outside”; in Caverna children are born without any expressions at all. The lucky ones grow up rich enough to purchase new guises from celebrated “Facesmiths” but the underclass of “drudges” are consigned to one or two expressions of placid servitude that must last their whole life.
But Neverfell is different. From the moment she leaves the relative safety of the cheese caves (even cheeses can kill if mistreated) she is hounded by the rich and famous members of the Cavernan court, even working her way up to the terrible Grand Steward himself. Poor Neverfell is ill-prepared for court life. As the ruling aristocrats try to outdo each other by providing the Grand Steward with “true delicacies” — wines, cheeses and perfumes that can alter the mind with stunning effect but may cause death and madness if poorly administered — Neverfell becomes a pawn in their deadly games of subterfuge and assassination.
In some ways, then, the city of Caverna is recognisable. A dark and dangerous underground world with a disturbed ruler, a ruthless upper-class, and an impoverished group of workers. But so many of the details surpass this basic premise in a way that other stories do not.
She smiled, deciding upon Face 57, the Willow Bows Before the Gale
Each one is so evocative they had me trying them out in the mirror (in the privacy of my own home, I hasten to add).
And from the motherly Facesmith, Madame Appeline, whose true nature had me constantly guessing, to the “putty girls”, hired to demonstrate faces to customers like living mannequins, the idea of an expressionless world was full and inspired.
Another touch that particularly shone were the cartographers — people so insanely obsessed with mapping Caverna’s twisting tunnels and impossible passages that speaking to them can bring on madness after only five minutes. To guard against this danger the cartographers must travel in carts adorned with hourglasses so that the sane individual can be dragged out if they stay chatting too long. Then there’s the fact that the thirteen hour day puts the Cavernan people mysteriously “out of clock”, the ingenious pulley systems that transport people throughout Caverna, and wines and cheeses with a mind of their own. It’s these ideas — the truly weird — that make Hardinge an exciting author.
I didn’t give A Face Like Glass five stars because at times the plot meandered a little too far off track, particularly in the second half where a couple of plot devices felt rather convenient; a shame in a book that is otherwise far from lazy. The story could have benefitted from being slightly sharper and possibly slightly shorter to knot the many strings of the story together more neatly. That said there is an impressive amount going on in A Face Like Glass and the many layers of the unknown mean the reader is always guessing. I complimented Hardinge in Cuckoo Song for the way that she manages to divulge the answers to some secrets as she goes only to immediately raise trickier questions and she’s certainly no one-trick pony. That canny ability to know when to give and when to hold back was just as present here.
Her prose, too, is natural and easy. There is nothing patronising about Hardinge’s writing and I believe her to be an author that can transcend age categories; a real pleasure to read. The characterisation in A Face Like Glass was not as strong as that in Cuckoo Song, a symptom of the fact that the wacky setting takes centre stage. But I did enjoy Neverfell herself, who is rather charming and something a bit different. I suspect she may divide readers, some of whom may tire as she good-naturedly falls into trap after trap. But there is an intelligence behind her simple nature which helps to ensure she is more than simply endearing. In fact her self-diagnosed “slight-madness” means that she can concoct plans that no one else would ever dream of and it lends a realism to her fearfulness which would otherwise be wholly unbelievable. Ultimately Neverfell is a very good character, determined to do right by everyone, and yet her will to survive never wavers. The effect was a sunny strength that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Hardinge has produced a masterful adventure in A Face Like Glass: a gothic, frightening world full of delights and dangers, mysteries and murders. Through it all her central character shines; a funny awkward little creature determined to do the right thing against the odds.