A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge

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This title doesn’t work for me – glass isn’t easily mailable – but I suppose ‘A Face Like Silly-Putty’ has all sorts of ridiculous connotations.

In Caverna, lies are an art – and everyone’s an artist . . .
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 (or fake) joy, despair or fear – at a price.
Into this dark and distrustful world comes 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’s emotions are as obvious on her face as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, though entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed . .

World-building can be a tough one; creating a sense of environment is key in works like this, and the author of this novel was clearly aware of such. She spends the entirety of the book widening her underground setting chapter-by-chapter. Just, in this case, I wonder if it was too much. Her world is vast and complex, with intricate systems of government; the dark world of luxury has some unique ideas involved (memory influencing wines and sensory cheeses for example), creating a fantastic backdrop for a well-developed plot. It’s just a shame she doesn’t put much emphasis on anything else.

The story starts very strong, following an Alice down the rabbit-hole scenario, bringing our protagonist into that effectively designed backdrop I was talking about. I liked the lead; I found her the correct ratio of adventurous and naïve, much like Alice’s character in the famous wonderland saga. The sub-characters begin with the same charm and intricacies as she does, her guardian in particular was fascinating, and all characters are furthered in interest by the notion of having to actively learn facial expression (an idea which is sadly never used to its full potential). As I said, some of the aspects of the world are fantastic; strange luxuries built with fine crafts, long systems of habitable tunnels, but few are fleshed-out within the storyline.

After the first quarter of the novel, the world-building becomes unnecessary. The trouble is the world-building never blends into the plot, but remains too concentrated, over-riding the story events with constant interruption of new-world processes. Part-way through the completely new notion of a slave-ridden underbelly was introduced, interrupting the flow of the plot not only in that instance, but continuously as the storyline desperately tries to accommodate the new aspect of this world, alongside all the other already established concepts. And then more come into play.

I suppose if the other elements of the novel could keep up with the world-building, it wouldn’t be so daunting, but every other aspect plays second-place to world-building. Character development is pretty much lacking all the way through, which is a shame because I was so looking forward to how the protagonist would adapt to her world. I found that without the support of character-growth the constantly shifting plot fell a little flat, and by three-quarters of the way through I just lost passion. Some characters drifted in and out with little to no real depth of feel or establishment. By design though, it was genuinely difficult to garner who could be trusted and who couldn’t, bringing a theme of identity up to boil, which was well done, but the characters get stock-like towards the end.

The story didn’t have to be half as long as it was. There were numerous examples of ‘the long way round’ plot development, with minute, unimportant issues appearing and being quickly and uninterestingly resolved soon after. However, there are some nicely woven details of description, and the scenes that are significant often work very, very well.  The narrative is beautiful, elegant, and stylistically matches the sense of world.

For me, this was a study in world-development; the story is good enough, but sadly loses potential as the unique aspects are glanced over, or left to sit in the background. I could read the first few chapters over and over for their creativity and sense of impending wonder, but the wonder is never truly realised. Fantasy, and other-world buffs will enjoy this one; it’s a nice relaxing read, not demanding too much time and attention, despite its size. If you are in anyway struggling to write or understand how world-building works to the effect of a story, definitely add this to your pile.

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