RogerBW's Blog

A Face Like Glass, Frances Hardinge 15 July 2017

2012 fantasy. In the underground city of Caverna, Neverfell was found with no memories, aged five, in a cheese-vat. Seven years later, she sets out to catch an escaped rabbit, and ends up finding her place in the world.

Hardinge does it again. I galloped through this book and my mind is still resonating. Caverna is a society within and below a single mountain, and the Surface is merely a rumour to almost everyone. There is trade, since the Masters of the Crafts are able to make the True Delicacies that nobody else can achieve, but the contact is minimal.

Grandible distrusted visitors, so by now all his booby-traps would have been set. Doors would be locked and their handles smeared with a paralysing veneer of Poric Hare-Stilton just in case. Besides such precautions, there were also the ordinary hazards of a cheesemaker's domain. Open the wrong door and you might find yourself faced with shelves of Spitting Jesses, rattling on their dove-feather beds and sending up a fine spray of acid through the pores in their rinds, or some great mossy round of Croakspeckle, the very fumes of which could melt a man's brain like so much butter.

Like Gormenghast, Caverna is intricately designed, with its glowing fly-trap lanterns and its cunning water supply system; but unlike Gormenghast, it's filled with people one cares about. Even though some of those people are clearly villains, they're still people.

And they do not naturally form expressions: they have to be taught Faces, and of course the menials are not taught Faces of discontent because why would they ever need them?

A thousand little luxuries were being tested with trepidation to discover which were too ordinary for the Court, and which too exquisite to be survivable.

Perhaps Neverfell is a little like Hardinge's other young female protagonists, but that feeling may just be because I don't read a whole lot of stories about young women getting into deeper and deeper trouble and then finding their way out. Certainly she has some attitudes in common with Mosca or Hathin, but either of those two would have reacted in completely different ways to the situations Neverfell finds herself in.

The blending of True Wines was a dangerous business, particularly when they had conflicting personalities. In Maxim Childersin's laboratory, a sigil-covered white barrel of Smogwreath currently sighed in one corner, whilst in the centre of the room a set of concentric salt circles confined a restlessly creaking vat of Addlemeau. The two Wines were not yet ready to blend. The Addlemeau still needed to develop its undertones of vanilla, and the Smogwreath had not overcome its fear of strangers. Both, if disturbed, were quite capable of tearing strips off a man's soul like bark from a tree.

Some people might see parallels with Wonderland, but although madness is an important part of the undercurrents it's not all-pervading. There is Wine that can erase memories, and other Wine that can bring them back, and indeed this book has the best treatment of a protagonist's memory being partly erased that I have ever seen.

Perhaps not madness, then, but a thoroughgoing whimsy, with plenty of Deadly Attack Cheese, and endless originality rather than falling back on the clichés one can pull from a closed society.

'But . . .' Neverfell could not suppress her thoughts. 'But he must know a little about cheese. Or about this cheese, anyway. You see, when a Sturton is ripening it's very important to turn it often, but after it's ripe and sliced, you have to poke it with a gold needle regularly to let it vent. So he must be doing that, at the very least.'

'What makes you so sure?' snapped the Enquirer.

'Um . . . well, if he hadn't, I think somebody would have heard the explosion,' Neverfell explained meekly.

And there's the Kleptomancer; and the Cartographers (who try to map Caverna; their carriages bear a five-minute hourglass, because if you listen to one for longer than that you risk being driven as mad as they are); and…

'Don't you remember? The last reprise must still be taking effect.' Zouelle passed her another vial of Wine. 'Drink this — that should sort it out.'

Neverfell downed the Wine, and then stared at the device with dawning realization and glee. 'Oooh! I built this! Hee hee hee hee!'

'You're really not reassuring me, Nev,' growled Erstwhile.

'No, no, it'll be fine.'

This book is a suitcase stuffed full to bursting with those vacuum-bags for clothes, and now they've all come open, and it sucks you in as its contents expand.

The Childersins were armed with swords and daggers. The Cartographers were armed with nothing but surprise, but really quite a lot of surprise.

Everything here works: world-building, characters, plot, writing. It's superb.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 07:15pm on 15 July 2017

    This was the first Francis Hardinge I read and I love it all to bits. She manages so effortlessly to be both rollicking and subversive!

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:28pm on 15 July 2017

    Well said, and I agree.

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