A Face Like Glass, by Frances Hardinge

Ok guys, let’s talk about one of my absolute favourite reads from this year.

img_9125I first heard of Hardinge earlier this year, when Pan MacMillan announced on Instagram that they would publish new editions of “Frances Hardinge’s best loved stories”, and displayed photos of the gorgeous paperback covers. Reading that I thought: “Who the heck is Frances Hardinge? And how come I never heard of her works? And oh my God, these covers are amazing!” Wikipedia taught me that Hardinge was a successful British author, who loved wearing black hats and vintage clothes. So I immediately headed to Amazon and purchased a copy of A Face Like Glass. Yep, I am that kind of girl. Impulsive book buying, always.

And I must say that I was well inspired to do so! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, here is the blurb, my review follows.

In the underground city of Caverna the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare – wines that can remove memories, cheeses that can make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer, even as they slit your throat. The people of Caverna are more ordinary, but for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned, and only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to show joy, despair or fear – at a price.

Into this dark and distrustful world tumbled Neverfell, a little girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell has a face that shows her emotions as transparently as glass. A Face incapable of lying. A face that is a dangerous threat and an irresistible treasure- a face that some would kill for…

So where to start? The writing? Frankly, I relished the sophisticated eccentricity of it. All Hardinge’s descriptions are written in an imaginative, even baroque, and yet so precise manner. The language is exquisite really, and I kept rereading passages because they were music to my ears and delight to my heart.

“The taste was a sound, a thin ribbon of blue-silver sounds blended together into a single melody….”

And this delicate writing serves a wonderful story of adventure and bravery. Neverfell is an unforgettable character, touching in her naivety, admirable in her righteousness and highly relatable in her coming of age journey. Following her through the meanders of the mysterious Caverna was a sheer delight, although heartrending at times.

“Neverfell bowed as a little boat of hopes sank quietly and without any fuss.”

In this weird and imaginative story, nothing is what it looks like and the plot is full of twists and turns, as tortuous as the thoroughfares of the ever changing Caverna. Neverfell is faced with a lot of deception and disappointments on her way, and her eyes slowly open to the cruel realities of the world she lives in, while trying to survive to a chess game in which she is merely a pawn in cold calculating hands. The absence of mischief in her person, her uncompromising big heart, make her an easy character to root for.

“He felt a shock, as if her faith was a golden axe and had struck right through his dusty husk of a heart.”

Luckily, not everybody is a cold hearted puppeteer in her world, and Neverfell finds herself true-hearted allies on her way. Getting to recognise them is not an easy journey though.

“Over the years she had build a special palace of the mind for him and he had helped lay every brick. Now he could feel its golden walls tumbling.”

In fact, the whole world building is enthralling. The story is full of colourful and fascinating characters: the ageless Grand Steward, the mad Cartographers, the mysterious Kleptomancer, the rigid Enquirer are all beautiful, peculiar literary objects. And they serve a deeper reflection on the structure of society, and the nature of the elite. This novel is a magnificent telling of a great quest for freedom, an effort to gain independence and remain true to one’s values. Besides the whimsical world and characters lies a thought-provoking, clever tale.

I may need to reread Alice in Wonderlands; although I recognised some shared elements, I may have missed some references. But Hardinge surely has a brilliant voice of her own and I will definitely check her other works.

“It draws you in. You twist your mind into new shapes. You start to understand Caverna…and you fall in love with her.”

My rating : An absolute gem. I was prepared for a nice, pleasant piece of children literature and was met with a work of utter brilliance. With A Face Like Glass, Hardinge earns her place in the Pantheon of my (absolute) favourite authors (yes, that’s something).

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