Imagination running riot – ‘A Face Like Glass’ by Frances Hardinge

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It took me at least a hundred pages to feel my way into this book. Probably because it confounded my expectations. It’s a children’s book, so I envisaged an easy read. It’s critically acclaimed,  so I was expecting a high quality tale. What I hadn’t expected was something so mind-bogglingly creative. I recently read Catherine Fisher’s excellent Obsidian Mirror, a simple story,well told. I hoped for something similar. Instead I found my self-treated to a convoluted, crazy tale, with ruthless inquisitors, insane map-makers and exploding cheese. It’s a riot of the imagination and a work of creative genius.

The story opens inside the catacombs of a reclusive master cheese maker (see, it’s odd from the outset) Seven years earlier he found a stowaway. A stowaway who had somehow circumnavigated all of his defences. When he saw her face he was so terrified he made her wear a mask, and destroyed all his mirrors. That girl was Neverfell. She will change the world.

The novel is set inside Caverna, a subterranean kingdom, riddled with passageways and intrigues. It’s like a proving ground for Alice in Wonderland characters. Caverna is as a peculiar a setting as it’s possible to imagine. Its single most unusual attribute is that its denizens only have a fixed number of facial expressions. Each one must be learnt. The rich have many, the poor as few as four. Neverfell, the novel’s protagonist is unique. She comes from the outside, and her face is like glass. Everything thought and feeling she has is transparent. She cannot lie. It’s a fantastic device. A character whose integrity is unimpeachable. Hardinge has great fun with it.

Some of Caverna’s other delights include, a supreme ruler who never sleeps, shutting down one side of his brain at a time. Cartographer’s who can drive people insane just by talking to them. A master criminal, who’s as elusive as he is cunning. Wine that makes you forget, perfume that makes you attractive and cheese that is highly unstable. Add to this, a political family that make the Borgias look like the Beverly Hillbillies, and some bone-crunchingly inventive assassins and you have a potent brew indeed.

Once I’d felt my way into the book, it was impossible not to be entranced. Hardinge’s use of language is phenomenal  The book appears to be marketed at fans of JK Rowling, but the word building and intricate imagery make the Potter novels look like Spot the Dog. The novel is suffused with a soft and delicate wit. There is villainy of the highest order, and heroism of epic proportions. There is some obvious but important allegory, and at the centre beats a very good story.

After a shaky start, I loved A Face Like Glass, a beautiful and original novel. It’s a book that deserves to be read far and wide. I would recommend it for children with strong reading skills and adults whose sense of wonder is still alive. There really are very few books like it.

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