There’s no better time than the surreal moment we’re living in to sample the works of one of my favorite writers, British children’s author Frances Hardinge — and particularly her eerily on-point 2012 novel A Face Like Glass.
In it, a girl with a dangerous ability explores a cavernous underground world without exit routes, filled with people wearing masks. The more she learns about her mysterious surroundings, the more she realizes that it may be up to her to wake up an entire civilization — for, as one character warns her, “It is dangerous to lock oneself away and lose track of what is happening outside.”
It’s a strange, surreal story with a wild child at its center — and like all of Hardinge’s novels, it’s a little wild itself. Since publishing her debut novel in 2005, Hardinge has received wide acclaim in her native country. She’s roundly praised for her lush writing style, unique story ideas, meticulous world-building, and, perhaps most of all, her irascible, addictive heroines. But outside of Britain, Hardinge is still rather obscure, maybe because most people still equate children’s fantasy with the behemoth Harry Potter and nothing more.
Hardinge’s fantasies, however, are sophisticated, intelligent, and wildly original, and many adults as well as children love them. The magical elements don’t announce themselves — rather, they thread through the background, deepening the landscapes of stories that feel very familiar. Hardinge’s novels are really about societies wrestling with huge questions of politics, rebellion, and social change. Best of all, they’re usually told through the viewpoint of the best sort of protagonist — an angry, obstinate girl.
This type of surly preteen rebel usually makes for a highly unreliable narrator — not because she’s deliberately keeping things from us, but because there’s just so much she doesn’t know about the larger workings of the fantastical world she’s in.
Neverfell, the heroine of Face Like Glass, is one of the strongest examples of Hardinge’s classic type of heroine. Her 2012 novel is the fifth of her nine middle-grade fantasies, and it is in many ways the weirdest of the lot. It’s also one of her most memorable, and in these times of quarantine, I’ve found myself returning to it and enjoying its odd allegorical fable more than ever.
A Face Like Glass is about privilege, power, and fomenting rebellions
A Face Like Glass is set within an underground society, Caverna, whose inhabitants are skilled artisans but who all lack the ability to display their emotions. To compensate, they depend upon the talents of Facesmiths, mask-makers who create highly ornate masks that display a wide range of human expressions.
In such a society, the ability to own numerous masks to display a range of emotions is a luxury shared by the privileged few. Meanwhile, the rest of the populace is known as “drudges,” members of a destitute and downtrodden workforce who can only afford one or two masks — meaning they can only display a very small range of expressions at all times. That makes communicating how they truly feel not only difficult but also dangerous.
Into this odd society tumbles the human Neverfell, wearing the unthinkable: a naturally animated face that reveals her every emotion. Worried her mask-less face could put her in danger, a master craftsman named Grandible takes her in and makes her his apprentice, keeping her away from the rest of Caverna. Neverfell grows up sequestered for most of her young life, with no memory of her life before Caverna, understanding only that her face is somehow different from everyone else’s — a terrible abomination.
To hide it, Grandible gives her a mask of her own. But he can’t keep her hidden away forever, and when she finally finds her way out of his caves and into the rest of Caverna (by following a white rabbit, no less), she topples a complicated, intricate series of dominos. Desperate to figure out who she is, Neverfell finds herself embroiled in political schemes, murderous plots, and a populist uprising, as she becomes the unwitting “face” of the outside world to a people who’ve nearly forgotten the outside world exists.
Hardinge’s books always lead to unexpected places, and the journey there is always stunning
If all this sounds like a preposterous premise, consider that Hardinge isn’t the only recent writer to play around with the idea of an underground world whose people are forced to mimic regular human emotions. In fact, Face Like Glass and Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror hit Us have more than a few things in common: They each posit an underground world inhabited by a class of slaves who are eventually shaken into revolt by the coming of a girl from aboveground. Her presence, and her ability to remember and communicate the freedom of the outside world, catalyzes their revolt and attempt to seek access to the world above.
Of course, Peele’s film is an allegorical horror movie built on the United States’ specific fraught relationship to slavery, while Hardinge’s novel is molded in the tradition of British children’s fantasy, where magic is a casual fact of the world. The focus is on children coming of age in an often savage and highly complex social system. Within this much different genre, Hardinge’s underground becomes an allegory for class inequality and the social conditioning of the oppressed. Take, for instance, the way she describes Caverna itself.
“Ordinary maps cannot work in Caverna, and that is not just because the city is not flat. Directions do not always work as they should. Compasses spin uncontrollably or shiver into fragments.” ...
“I hope not,” whispered Neverfell, “because if I’m sane, then there’s something wrong with Caverna, something horrible and sick, and nobody else has noticed. If I’m sane, then we shouldn’t be sitting around talking — we should all be clawing our way out as fast as we can.”
“Oh, I don’t think she’d like that,” the Kleptomancer remarked, with a hint of affection in his voice. “She needs us. Without us, there is no her, after all. She is the city, not the tunnels, and so she does everything she can to keep us down here. Sometimes I even wonder whether it is only possible to create True Delicacies here because she gives them their power, as a bribe to stop us leaving. When the Grand Steward declared that nobody was allowed to enter or leave the city, I believe he became her chosen beloved. I will tell you something else, though I cannot prove it. The city grows, and not just through the effort of pick and shovel. She has been stretching, spreading and contorting to make room for us all, and I think that is why geography no longer makes sense.”
It makes perfect sense to me that this novel has lingered in my mind during the time of the coronavirus. But my praising of Face Like Glass is also an excuse for me to pitch all of Hardinge’s many marvelous books. She likes to toss improbable story elements at the walls of her genre’s conventions to see if they’ll break or hold — and due to her ability to construct entire worlds around the strangest ideas, they nearly always remain intact. I’ve never read a writer more skilled at weaving unlikely, startling, or wholly bonkers plot threads together into beautiful allegorical tapestries. And I’ve rarely read a writer more clever at delivering stories packed with feral girls:
If you like Face Like Glass, consider also the superb duology Fly by Night and Twilight Robbery, a middle-grade historical fantasy bursting at the seams with wit and wordplay and revolutionary spirit. I’m also partial to the intricate horror fantasy Cuckoo Song. Or try The Lie Tree, perhaps the most critically acclaimed of all Hardinge’s books.
But regardless of where you start, please do yourself a favor and read Frances Hardinge. In an uncertain time, you deserve small certainties, and I’ve rarely been more certain that an author will find their way into your heart.