You can tell lies using words, but it is harder to make your face lie. Something in your expression nearly always gives away what you are really feeling inside.
People who know you well, like parents and friends, can tell from your face when you are happy, sad, excited, tired and so on. Your teachers can tell from the look on your face when you’re paying attention and when you are bored. In the same way, you look at other people’s faces to get an idea of how they feel.
What if this wasn’t possible? What if people did not have natural, spontaneous expressions but had to be taught expressions, and to use them based on the situation they are in and what they want to convey?
It would be a lot easier to lie, then. To literally present a false face to the world.
This is how things are in the underground city of Caverna in the book A Face Like Glass by British author Frances Hardinge. Nor is that the only way in which truth is disguised there.
Caverna is known for the rare and exquisite things made by its craftsmen — wines that play with your memory, exquisite dishes, cheeses with amazing flavours, effects. All these fancy things are made to try and please the Chief Steward, the ruler of Caverna.
Courtiers from the aristocratic craft families try to create new and amazing things to please the ruler’s jaded tastes. The court is full of intrigue and plots as each one tries to gain an advantage over the other. Afraid of assassins, the Chief only lets half his brain sleep at any time, so his behaviour and decisions vary based on which side of his brain is awake at any given time.
All this grandeur is a lie too. It is kept going by the labour of the Drudges, the servant class. Only taught a few expressions of obedience since birth, they work tirelessly in cruel conditions. Their fixed expressions make it easy for their masters to treat them like human machines. They live in Drudgery, a filthy, unpleasant part of Caverna, a huge contrast to the luxury the aristocracy lives in.
Into all this comes a strange little girl named Neverfell. Found and raised by a cheesemaker, Neverfell has a peculiar face and is forced to wear a mask, because the sight of her face is hard for the people of Caverna to take. Once she leaves her foster home of isolation and cheese, she is plunged into the thick of Caverna’s many mysteries.
Hardinge’s imagination is fertile and dazzling. She positively bursts with ideas, with all sorts of clever and exciting details on nearly every page. The language she uses is also brilliant. A lot of writers think they have to write ‘down’ to younger audiences, but Hardinge uses a rich, metaphor-laden style that is so delicious and inviting that readers of any age can’t help but be snared by its style and vividness. She doesn’t hold back on the darker side of her story either, with Neverfell facing some truly nasty, often two-faced characters and the injustice and cruelty of Caverna’s society clearly spelled out.
But it isn’t all serious; in fact, the novel never has time to settle down and be dull. There’s just too much going on, and it’s all exciting and fantastic. Let me be quite frank: I don’t love the fantasy genre as much as I used to. Fantasy should be about imagination and the unexpected; at the same time good fantasy should have something to say about people and about our world. A lot of the generic fantasy that gets published is none of these things. It is set in worlds that seem readymade in some storytelling factory, peopled by characters who have as much depth as a gingerbread man, plodding through plots that were old when the world (and I) were young.
So imagine my joy at finding a fantasy novel that is none of these things — and in a book that happens to be written for younger readers! Further proof that is it is a good thing for readers young and old to venture out of strictly consuming books written only for their age group.