Thursday, 18 April 2013

Wine and Cheese Night: A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

A Face Like Glass - Frances Hardinge

A Face Like Glass is Frances Hardinge's Kitschie's Red Tentacle nominated book. Its the first of hers I've read, having received rave reviews from Tom Pollock and being nominated for the Kitschies, I felt I had to. I stumbled across a signed copy in Forbidden Planet and it jumped straight to the top of my TBR. an intriguingly fantastic story about twisting, fractured urban spaces? With novel ideas and wonderful worldbuilding? Count me in.

Hardinge's heroine, Neverfell is a mixture of archetype and atypical heroine, a curious blend of (potentially) fatally flawed and prophesied outsider (without the prophecy), come to change the world forever. As a YA novel, I wasn't expecting the nuances and subtlety of Neverfell's heroic character. She lives in a world where every face must be learnt: the more powerful and rich you are, in general the larger the range and subtlety of your facial range. She, on the other hand, appears from places unknown with the titular 'face like glass', unable to control her facial expressions, which belie her every emotional nuance to the world. She is thus unable to lie, and this becomes a focal point within a plot whereby she is captured, escapes, is recaptured ad nauseum.

At points the constantly whirling action becomes a little loose, a little hard to follow, but Hardinge more than makes up for the plots occasional complexity with its intricacies. While I found it easy at points to predict what was happening and where, there were other moments where Hardinge throws a curveball like a boomerang - completely turning the plot on its head. One particular moment is the realisation of quite how effective a plot device 'True Delicacies' are. 'True Delicacies', in particular Cheese and Wine in the book, are  goods that effect the senses that do more than just their primary function. Much of the start of the novel follows Neverfell in the tutelage of Master Grandible, a Cheesemaker, and the preparation for the presentation of the wonderfully named Stackfalter Stalton to the Grand Steward's Banquet. The eating of this provides one with memories that they have nearly forgotten, or need to know. Similarly, Wine in general seems to have an effect on the memory, allowing for the specific forgetting of experiences or time, or the re-remembering of it. This has a great impact of the novel, as Hardinge carefully uses the effect of Wine to manipulate the timescale of the novel's characters.

The plot-beneath-the-plot, as it were, the political ruminations that run through the novel, are just a shade too obvious at times. Yes, this is YA, aimed at the younger reader, but nevertheless, the repressed underclass (in physical space as well as class) of Drudges upon which the upper class artisanal and Autocratic classes rely on eventually rise up, though interestingly not to take power but for a deeper plot aim. This Marxist view of worker-rights seemed just a bit too obvious, too easy. I enjoyed the focus on the middle men and their effects much more throughout, as more nuanced and presenting interesting ideas: the palace servants in particular are vital for Neverfell's plot, and yet represent an Other that has a foot in both the autocratic and Drudge camps. The tools of Artisanal tyranny that the use of Faces, and the rebelliousness of pulling a new Face were also interesting touched upon, but I feel could have been expanded on a little more.

Alas, too much negativity can spoil a broth as much as too many cooks. So lets focus on the best thing about the book: the world. And my goodness me is the world fantastic (in every way). The twists and turns of Caverna, the Catographers, the Kleptomancer (and his very interesting method of predicting action), the Grand Steward... All the chatracters (and I include Caverna itself [herself?] in this) are thoroughly thought out, have individual actions, reactions, motivations. The semi-utopian actions of the plot, which feel a little thin at times, are more than made up for by the utterly delightful world Hardinge sucks you into. Colourful, exotic, beautiful, mysterious, claustrophic, but always utterly astonishing.

A Face Like Glass, therefore, is a novel which wears its YA market on its sleeve, yet makes leaps and bounds in its exploration of character, particularly character when constrained. It emphasises the importance of expressions in order to communicate effectively, the way memory works, how humans can overcome odds and find friendship. It's world is sumptuous. Yes, it has its flaws, particularly in the occasional manner of the central plot, but it is nevertheless utterly beguiling. Please, go and read it.

Overall Rating: 4.5*


There is a great interview by Tom Pollock of Hardinge here
Please also see Maureen Kincaid Speller's much better exploration of the political themes of the book, as well as rather good review, here.

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