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Literature / A Face Like Glass

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Deep underground, there is a city called Caverna that has retreated under the mountain 500 years ago. It's not your average underground city, though - it's divided between aristocratic houses of craftsmen, who create some of the delicacies that can only be found there, like Wines that can make you forget or remember something, cheeses that convey experience instead of taste or Perfumes that can submit you to the will of their wearer. There's something unusual about the people of Caverna themselves, as well - their faces are unable to convey emotions, so if they want to show - or conceal - what they are thinking and feeling, they have to learn facial expressions the way people learn foreign languages. There are special artisans called Facesmiths that can provide you with such education. It's not free, of course, so the range of one's expressions largely depends on their stand in society.
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Once upon a time, a little girl turned up inside the domain of Grandible the Cheesemaker, who had barred himself from the rest of Caverna. No one, including herself, knew anything about her or where she had come from. There was something about her face that horrified Grandible, and he decided that Caverna is not for the likes of her. He hid the girl, who he called Neverfell, until she was twelve years old. But a string of accidents made Neverfell leave Grandible's domain and threw her into the world of deadly intrigues and even deadlier secrets. If Neverfell wishes to come out of her predicament alive and learn about her past, she has to work hard.

A Face like Glass was published in 2012 and is the fifth book by the British middle-grade author Frances Hardinge.

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Tropes in A Face like Glass include:

  • Alien Geometries: So much so that trying to map Caverna turns you barking mad. Just ask any of the Cartographers. Or, rather, don't.
  • Alice Allusion: Neverfell is led out of Grandible's labyrinth by a white rabbit. Neverfell is also "a little mad" and the city she lives in operates under rather warped logic. In the climax, she is even given a flask of Wine with the label reading, "Drink Me."
  • An Aesop: Accompanying the Central Theme (see below), "Having a friend you can trust and be honest around is worth more than any power gained through deception."
  • The Beastmaster: Tybalt Prane, a killer for hire known as the Zookeeper, utilizes trained snakes to track and kill his marks. He tries to kill Neverfell under contract from Appeline, but ends up dead in a scuffle with the Kleptomancer.
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  • The Beautiful Elite: Neverfell notices that the Childersins are taller, more beautiful and healthy-looking than the rest of the Caverna. This is because Maxim dug a tunnel above his house that lets real sunlight into a parlour he calls the "Morning Room", specifically so it would make himself and his clan healthier and smarter than other Cavernans.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Neverfell manages to win the loyalty of the entire palace staff by purposely spilling Wine at a banquet to hide a drop one server had spilled. Apparently, no one of the courtier caste (which she was at the time) has ever cared enough about a servant to do something so risky.
  • Berserk Button: Neverfell's expressions of anger and defiance are this for Madame Appeline.
  • Big Bad: Maxim Childersin.
  • Brown Note: Of a sort. Cartography knowledge drives people insane trying to understand it. For this reason cartographers are avoided and must not be listened to for more than five minutes at a time. Neverfell eventually discovers that there are Cartographers so crazy that even other Cartographers have to monitor the amount of time they spend with them.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: Neverfell. It's not that she can't tell it, it's that it's always very obvious what she's thinking.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: The extraordinary delicacies are always spelled with capital letters, unlike the more mundane cheeses, wines and perfumes. Also, Faces with a capital F refers to a facial expression which has been learned.
  • Central Theme: Truth and Lies, how beauty and ugliness are found in both, and how the truth will always have more power.
  • Chekhov's Gun: How about everything? Seriously, everything that is mentioned in the novel at some point — the flytraps that provide the light, the glass grove of Madame Appeline, Grand Steward's death traps etc. — comes together at the end.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: All the aristocracy of Caverna display it, particularly the Childersins.
  • Connected All Along: Five year-old Neverfell and her mother were smuggled into Caverna by Childersin and Appeline, and she was rescued from Appeline by the Kleptomancer.
  • Constantly Curious: Mix with plenty of Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny! and you have Neverfell. Grandible kept her secluded from the rest of Caverna, so every little thing captures her attention when she's finally free to roam.
  • Crapsack World: Caverna is a battleground for aristocrats that fight tooth and nail for domination, while the drudges live in horrifying neglect and squalor. That's not even mentioning the fact that it's a sunless, underground city chock-full of Alien Geometries with a constant danger of a rockfall that may or may not have a mind of its own.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: The legendary "Undiscovered Passage" thought to be imagined by Cartographers really exists. It's a tunnel up to the surface Childersin and Appeline dug in secret, through which Neverfell descended into Caverna.
  • Daddy's Little Villain: Maxim plans to mould his niece Zouelle into another him for a future generation. She complies out of fear of him and fear of what the rest of the family will do to her if she shows weakness, but is eventually inspired by Neverfell to rebel.
  • Day Hurts Dark-Adjusted Eyes: Aware of this, Neverfell packs smoked glasses for the climactic escape to the aboveground. She, however, is far too enchanted by her first sunrise to wear a pair.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Caverna is so deadly that the person in charge is basically plotting against themselves.
  • Defector from Decadence: Grandible became disillusioned with the power plays of the Court some time before the book starts, which is why he lives as a hermit. Later on, Zouelle Childersin adopts the sentiment.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: By the end, Neverfell, her friends, and a good chunk of Caverna's lower class are free above ground, and the underground nation is going to be ruled by a man who plans to improve conditions for the drudges and cow the aristocracy into behaving themselves.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Treachery runs so deep in Caverna society that concepts like altruism and empathy are unheard of. Neverfell's instinct to help others perplexes even the least loathsome of characters.
    • In Maxim Childersin's mind, if it cannot be owned, it has no worth. At one point, he genuinely attempts to bribe Neverfell into complacency with the promise of a section of the aboveground her's to govern and gain tributes from, when what she really wants is to see the world above.
    • When Neverfell was five and her memories of her birth mother first erased, Appeline tried to coax happy Faces from the child by giving her sweets and pretty clothes. The woman never realized trinkets are a poor substitute for parental affection.
  • Eye of Newt: The ingredients and directions for making Caverna's luxuries are full of this. One Wine in particular calls for grapes that are tended to in silence, harvested during a new moon, crushed by orphans, and aged for a century while being serenaded by fine music.
  • Eye Scream: Why Perfume makers wear blindfolds. They have their eyes plucked out to strengthen their sense of smell and make them better at the craft.
  • Fantastic Light Source: With an absence of natural light, Caverna is lit by trap-lanterns, bundles of venus flytrap-like plants. They breathe people's exhaled air and expel, not only light, but fresh air as well.
  • Faux Horrific: People commonly react to Neverfell's bare face with alarm, despite it being it plain and ordinary. The citizens of Caverna are expressionless at birth and need to learn how to show emotion, while Neverfell's face can naturally show multiple emotions at once. This is because she was born outside of Caverna, aboveground.
  • Gambit Pileup: How about All of Caverna? Just about everyone has some plot or plan of their own Neverfell in the climax deliberately reveals as many as she can at once to throw the court into panic.
  • Genius Loci: Some characters (the Kleptomancer, Neverfell) speak of Caverna as one. But then again, they are either a little or wholly mad.
  • Grayscale of Evil: The Grand Steward is so devoid of color, Neverfell first mistakes him for a statue. His skin is like marble, hair like glass threads, and even his blood is translucent like liquid glass. It's unclear if this is a result of the potions that keep him from aging, his boredom with immortality, or a combination of both.
  • Happily Adopted: Neverfell and Grandible don't have the warmest relationship, but get along pretty well.
  • Hope Is Scary: After getting to know Neverfell, Zouelle becomes more wary of her because the younger girl's bottomless trust and kindness can't help but make Zouelle consider there is life outside of lies and back-stabbing.
  • Immortality Immorality: The aristocracy of Caverna; the Grand Steward in particular.
  • Indy Ploy: Neverfell thinks more with her heart than her head, leading to many halfcocked courses of action which snowball into these.
  • Infectious Insanity: You can't speak with a Cartographer for longer than five minutes, otherwise your lot shall be bitter.
  • Inspector Javert: Enquirer Treble, chief of the Enquiry (the closest thing Caverna has to a constabulary) and the Grand Steward's righthand woman, is convinced that Neverfell is at the heart of some secret conspiracy. Technically, she's right, just not in a way either of them expect.
  • Ironic Name: "Neverfell" is perhaps the worst name for a child from aboveground living underground.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Not exactly a spoiler-worthy trope, since we are told of the existence of memory-changing Wines in the very first chapter. What is spoiler-worthy, though, are some rather creative uses to which certain characters put these Wines.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • One is a Karmic Death; Madame Appeline's precious face is cut by Neverfell, the girl whose mother she imprisoned and tortured emotionally and mentally, then she falls into a giant trap-lantern, similar to one she caged her victim in, to be slowly digested.
    • The other a Fate Worse than Death; Not only is Childersin's very own illegal tunnel used by Neverfell to save the working class he used as guinea pigs for poisons, but the niece he used as a minion splashes Perfume that makes people want to befriend the wearer...while he's surrounded by Cartographers. Excited, chatty Cartographers.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: Grandible named Neverfell after the variety of cheese in the vat he discovered her in.
  • Loon with a Heart of Gold: Cartographers are incurably mad and feared for the ability to spread it to others, but not one is malicious or violent. While a former one, the Kleptomancer, can be pushed to kill, he doesn't enjoy it.
  • Mad Artist: Madame Appeline's occupation is more of a craft than an art, and she does it not so much for its own sake as for money and respect in high society, but the truth behind her invention of the Tragedy Range puts her squarely in this trope. She had a woman from the surface lured into Caverna under false pretences, and kept her locked away in the basement so she could study her face. She would even let the woman spend time with her young daughter once a day then rip her away, just to provoke the expressions of motherly love and despair.
  • Memory Gambit: The Kleptomancer carefully edits his own memories and gives himself sealed orders to follow in order to avoid being understood by the many Chessmasters in Caverna. He helps Neverfell do the same later.
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: Played with. On the one hand, people are capable of feeling emotions they don't know facial expressions for, they just feel weird when it happens. On the other hand, the drudges couldn't rebel because every one of them didn't know that the others are angry too, since they didn't have an expression for that.
  • No Name Given: The Grand Steward's real name is never revealed, nor is the Kleptomancer's. The latter may have forgotten it due his use of amnesia-inducing Wines.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: When Neverfell learns of the secret tunnel out of Caverna, the thought of escaping without her loved ones and any brave servants or drudges never crosses her mind. It serves her well, since the exodus is only pulled off through everyone's combined efforts.
  • The Nose Knows: Years as a cheesemaker's apprentice gave Neverfell a very sensitive nose. It comes in handy for detecting Perfumes before her senses can be altered.
  • Only Friend: Before her adventure began, Grandible only let Neverfell talk with Erstwhile, a drudge child allowed free range in Caverna thanks to his delivery boy job. He's a Jerk with a Heart of Gold who liked talking with Neverfell because her naïveté made him feel smart, while caring for her deep down.
  • Only One Name: Neverfell, because her past is a mystery. Erstwhile's last name, if he has one, is never mentioned.
  • Peaceful in Death: He puts up a fight, but the Grand Steward finally accepts his end when he has a vision that his body is a box he can at last escape from. When Neverfell observes the body, she sees the ghost of a smile on his face.
  • Phantom Thief: The Kleptomancer. He can escape underwater and through tight, airless tunnels thanks to a cobbled together diving suit, made out of a suit of armour, and a breathing tube connected to a pack with a trap-lantern in it to provide oxygen.
  • Prefers Rocks to Pillows: Neverfell slept in a hammock in her home with Grandible, so when she is bought and appointed a taster by the Grand Steward, she finds the mattress in her posh living quarters too soft. She gets the idea to sleep in the canopy above her bed, which saves her from being assassinated in her sleep.
  • The Reveal: A brilliant one, concerning Neverfell's origins.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Neverfell is drawn to Appeline's Tragedy Range, Faces expressing wistfulness and motherly affection, and almost immediately considers if she is her long-lost birth mother. Appeline is not her mother, but the Faces are based on Neverfell's mother.
  • Secret Test of Character: The harrowing and outlandish interrogation the Grand Steward puts Neverfell through in Chapter 11 is less about learning whoever supposedly told her to spill Wine at his latest banquet than seeing if her face's natural expressiveness is genuine.
  • Significant Green-Eyed Redhead: Neverfell, Madame Appeline, and Neverfell's mother.
  • The Sociopath: Considering Cavernans must learn to project emotion, it should come as no surprise that faking kindness and interest is rampant in the den of liars. The Grand Steward cares for nothing except keeping his throne and regaining the ability to experience pleasure, but even he's a saint compared to Childersin and Appeline.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Maxim Childersin. Also, Madame Appeline. Dear god, Madame Appeline.
  • Spanner in the Works:
    • Neverfell functions as this in among everyone else's elaborate plans. Even her arrival into Caverna as a toddler was a big wrench in Appeline's machinations.
    • The Kleptomancer's describes his heists as this. He steals what is most likely to cause a stir in Caverna, an object essential to someone's plot, simply so he can observe how the schemers react.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: When she comes face to face with the Kleptomancer, Neverfell is stunned at how ordinary he looks.
    It was not a face that would stand out from a crowd. Indeed, given his height, most crowds would have swallowed him altogether.
  • Token Good Teammate: Enquirer Treble is the only member of Caverna's high society shown to have absolutely no schemes in play or interest in them. Not that this makes her a good person, mind you, as she is devoted to keeping order, not justice.
  • Unholy Matrimony: Childersin and Appeline, supposed rivals, have been in a Secret Relationship for years.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Neverfell's ultimate gambit. Justified, since she initially does not remember the plan due to a Memory Gambit in play.
  • Victory Is Boring: In his last scene, the Kleptomancer is in a position to become ruler of Caverna, and he reads the final note he wrote himself. All it contains is congratulations and a warning against drinking Wines again. While not totally disappointed, the Kleptomancer finds this anticlimactic and wonders what he should do with the city he now controls.
  • Wham Episode:
    • The sixth chapter, wherein Neverfell first sees her "disfigured" face, discovering it's normal, and why it shocks everyone who sees it.
    • The nineteenth chapter, which ends with the death of the Great Steward.
  • What Is This Feeling?: Neverfell experiences real, burning rage for the first time when she sees the drudge caste's abominable quality of life firsthand.
  • White Man's Burden: Maxim Childersin's plan to conquer the surface world has undertones of this.
    Childersin: We will be doing the overground a kindness. Right now it is a ghastly patchwork of petty kingdoms with short-lived monarchs, and in desperate need of a global ruler with centuries' experience behind them.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The elite of Caverna use special drugs and spices to prolong their lifespans to centuries. However, while none regret immortality yet, living so long has made the wonders of life dull and repetitive. The Grand Steward especially struggles with boredom so powerful that only one side of his brain can be awake at a time.
  • Wrench Wench: Neverfell has a talent for building machines.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks: The Doldrums. No one wanted to live there before sickness broke out and it had to be quarantined. The Undercity where the Drudgery dwell would count if it wasn't basically part labour camp, part sewer.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Might as well be the national sport of Caverna, but Maxim Childersin proves to be the master of this trope.

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