Genre: Fantasy Age Range: Lower YA Star Rating: 4.5 stars Series: standalone
In Caverna, lies are an art — and everyone’s an artist . . .
In the underground city of Caverna the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare — wines that can remove memories, cheeses that can make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer, even as they slit your throat. The people of Caverna are more ordinary, but for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned, and only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to show (or fake) joy, despair or fear — at a price.
Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a little girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell’s emotions are as obvious on her face as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, though entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed.
Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.
One of the reasons I love Middle Grade fantasy is because so many books manage to capture a spirit of boundless imagination – “imagination gone wild” I think I have called it many times in reviews. Those are the books where anything can happen, where the everyday is strange and the bizarre ordinary.
Frances Hardinge manages to capture that same spirit of boundless imagination in her books. Granted, they are lower YA (an often overlooked age range), but they are certainly YA. For one, the sheer length of her books is well beyond the MG limit, and at the upper end of the YA range!
The worlds she creates are just such fun. Here we have an underground city where crafts can be magical and deadly. Wines to remove or restore memories. Jellies that conjure up sounds. People whose faces must be taught expressions else they have none (and the social implications of that, and how you can oppress people by controlling the expressions they can learn.) It is a stunning world, boundless in its scope and mind-boggling in its inventiveness. It’s a world where it feels like anything can happen and feel normal.
The one drawback to this style is that sometimes you have to just accept things that happen, events that are so unusual it’s hard to wrap your head around them – particularly at the pace Frances Hardinge writes. You just trust that it will either be explained later, or it’s simply part of the world and roll with it. And yes, that can be a little confusing at times, but the world itself is enough fun to let those odd events slide without impeding your reading.
This book is one of the more complicated books I’ve read of hers so far, in terms of just how much is happening. There are schemes upon schemes twisting around Neverfell, and no one wants to tell her anything. Plus, with wines that can erase memories, the characters themselves might not know what’s going on. There are alliances and secrets, a mystery of who Neverfell is, and so many mysteries with clues scattered around that you won’t catch them all until the solutions are revealed.
I loved that – it’s the sort of borderline political fantasy novel that leans into the chaos of it all so that it doesn’t feel like it was missing out by not going all the way. My friend said I would love this particular book, and I certainly did. And it’s made me eager to finish off the rest of her backlist (there are three more, and I have one of them!)
Read my reviews of other books by Frances Hardinge:
Fly By Night: