‘Maybe that’s the worst kind of prison — not knowing you’re in a prison. Because then you don’t fight to get out.’The underground city of Caverna is known for its craftsmen and the exquisite products they create. Caravans laden with riches travel through the desert to get to the entrance of the city, and then go away again carrying small quantities of wines that can reshape your memory, cheeses with a life of their own, and perfumes that inspire immediate trust in whoever’s wearing them, against your better judgement. Caverna’s immense wealth is a result of its True Delicacies, and so the city guards its secrets closely.
In this city, a girl named Neverfell is one day found by Cheesemaster Grandible living deep within his tunnels, where nobody should have been. Not only that, but the girl bears as the unmistakable mark of an Outsider: a face that reveals her emotions as clearly as glass. In Caverna, everyone starts out with a face that displays nothing but the blankest of expressions; as they grow up, the city’s inhabits are taught how to express joy, surprise, fear, etc by employing the exclusive services of a Facesmith. The number and refinement of the facial expressions at one’s disposal is a clear marker of class. Cheesemaster Grandible knows that Neverfell’s presence in Caverna would never be tolerated, so he makes her his apprentice and keeps her secluded in his tunnels. But one day, like Alice, Neverfell follows a white rabbit — and the chain of events her escape sets in motion will change Caverna forever.
Friends, there aren’t enough superlatives in the world to describe this novel. I was already in awe of France Hardinge’s intricate, smart and gripping storytelling, but A Face Like Glass took things to another level. Neverfell’s story is a little like Mosca’s in Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery theme-wise — all three are novels where a smart girl who sees injustices draws the obvious conclusions; conclusions the adults around her have been blinded to by convenience, or habit, or fear — but to be honest I could happily read a thousand stories about this. After all, it’s not like the world exactly has an overabundance of riveting children’s fantasies that combine excellent storytelling with unapologetic political complexity.
Besides, the worldbuilding in A Face Like Glass is amazingly accomplished and completely unique. The Faces system, which may seem at first like a quirky fantasy premise, slowly reveals itself to be a carefully orchestrated system of social control. Before I elaborate on this, however, I need to tell you more about Neverfell. As I said above, this is a novel about someone seeing what has become invisible and then disrupting the status quo by loudly pointing out that the emperor has no clothes; part of the reason why this approach works so well, is Neverfell’s characterisation.
At one point in the novel, Neverfell’s reluctant friend Zouelle thinks of her as a blundering puppy; this is somewhat true, but in the least disparaging way you can possibly imagine. Neverfell is smart and earnest and kind and well-meaning, and furthermore a perfect example of the fact that inexperience and unintelligence are not one and the same. But the revolution she helps orchestrate is less about her personal qualities and more about the unique place she occupies in Caverna’s highly complex social system. It’s not that Neverfell is special; it’s that having grown up outside the Court she’s not yet blinded by complicated allegiances. Nor is she invested in protecting a status quo that privileges her, like Zouelle is, nor disempowered by systematic factors like her friend Erstwhile. If Neverfless feels “a queasy horror at the thought of the influenza sufferers, sealed into homes which had become tombs, waiting for their water to run out and their trap-lanterns to fail”, it’s because empathy has not yet been socialised out of her, and because she hasn’t spent her entire life being subtly and not so subtly encouraged to rationalise it away.
The same thing applies to Drudgery and the Drudge. The lives of opulence the elite of Caverna lead are a direct result of the ruthless exploitation of its workers: the Drudges, the city’s everyman and everywoman, are taught only Faces of eagerness and servility, and this allows the well-off to convince themselves they are “contended cogs in a giant machine”. Neverfell herself slips into this way of thinking the first time she sees them at their work:
Neverfell stared, fascinated. In her head she knew that what she was watching must be back-breaking and dangerous, and yet it was hard to feel anything for the workers. They just seemed so dogged, placid and docile, a hundred heads all with the same Face. Watching them, it was hard to believe that they had individual thoughts and feelings, that they were not just contended cogs in a giant machine, like those turned by the waterwheels below.This is dehumanisation and the worst sort of social control at work. But because Neverfell has no motivation to look away as quickly as possible, she keeps watching, and the self-serving myth the elites of Caverna have created turns out to be unable to stand close scrutiny:
And then, quite suddenly, everything changed before her 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 those things. They had always been denied such expressions, and now, at last, Neverfell was starting to understand why.The Faces system hides all these emotions from the people who exploit the Drudges so their consciences can be eased; and even more importantly, it hides the Drudges’ thoughts and feelings from each other, so that each worker feels that she or he is the only one angry and miserable and eager for a better life. Isolation equals disempowerment: the drudges are robbed of the possibility of “seeing their own anger reflected, and knowing that feeling was part of a greater tide”, with obvious consequences. Can you imagine a worst sort of loneliness?
Neverfell eventually says:
I hate it, the way they can only look calm and eager and willing to please, even when they’re watching each other die. It’s horrible. And I know why nobody teaches them more Faces. It’s just so that everybody else can pretend drudges aren’t real people. That’s right, isn’t it?Neverfell’s lack of guile makes her vocal, but she’s less of a heroine and more of a catalyst. She unbalances the system, and that gives the Drudges their opening. With dehumanisation of course comes underestimation, which means that the myth of the contended Drudges, which served Caverna for so long, is eventually its undoing:
An anger was building, but it was invisible to the casual eye. It burned unnoticed, like a spice that is undetectable in the first spoonful of potage, but which gradually builds its fire on the tongue.The ending of A Face Like Glass is a thing of beauty. Not only the revolution that changes Caverna forever, but the moment when Neverfell, Zouelle, Erstwhile and all their friends see the sunrise for the first time. It’s resonant and moving in ways I can’t explain, and a perfect coda to a sweeping, gloriously ambitious, and entirely triumphant novel.
The first symptoms of it might have been spotted among the errand boys, those flitters, skulkers and coin-snatchers. The sharp of eye might have noticed that they were a little more given to gaggles, and to suddenly pedalling away at the sound of a stranger’s step. Those who succeed in surprising them might even catch one with his fingers on his face, apparently pulling the skin below his eyes in a strange and grotesque way.
But the mighty of Caverna had far more to worry about than the whispers of drudge children, and so this, like many other important changes, went unnoticed. Had they known that some of said children were now carefully eavesdropping on their private conversations and reading their messages, they might have felt differently.
They read it too: Eve’s Alexandria, The Book Smugglers, Chachic’s Book Nook
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.