Author: Frances Hardinge
Publication Date: 5/10/12
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Children's
Blurb(GR): 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...
What if Alice grew up down the rabbit hole, and she needed a little white rabbit to lead her…out?
That’s a very basic, watered down one-liner that sort of describes what this book is about. You have to admit that it’s catchy though.
However, to say that this book is derivative of anything, even a classic like Alice in Wonderland, would be selling it extremely short. This is the kind of fantasy that I want to read – completely original and imaginative to the point of near insanity. It’s the kind of fantasy that makes me stretch and contort my brain into brand new outlooks. It makes me consider perspectives and possibilities that never crossed my mind before. It feels brand new. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any more out-there and unreal, it tethered me right back to reality with its incredible depth.
In the twisting tunnels and echoing chambers of the cave city Caverna, the children are born a little bit different:
“In the overground world, babies that stared up at their mother’s faces gradually started to work out that the two bright stars they could see above them were eyes like their own, and that the broad curve was a mouth like theirs. Without even thinking about it, they would curve their mouths the same way, mirroring their mothers’ smiles in miniature. When they were frightened or unhappy, they would know at once how to screw up their faces and bawl. Caverna babies never did this, and nobody knew why. They looked solemnly at the face above them, and saw eyes, nose, mouth, but they did not copy its expressions. There was nothing wrong with their features, but somehow one of the tiny silver links in the chain of their souls was missing. They had to be forced to learn expressions one at a time, slowly and painfully, otherwise they remained blank as eggs.”
When Master Grandible, a reclusive cheese artisan, discovers a lost child in his highly secluded tunnels, he realizes immediately that the girl is different. Seeing an opportunity but also wishing to protect her, he takes her in, hides her strange expressive face behind a black velvet mask, and raises her as his apprentice. Weary of Caverna's society, he barricades them in, dealing only with a select few through his well-defended door. Seven years later the girl, called Neverfell, follows a small white rabbit to a crack in her master’s domain and wanders out into the world of Caverna.
Caverna’s inner city is beautifully detailed and immersive – there are sparkling petrified forests and ravenous trap-lanterns, cheeses that can make you remember long-lost truths and wines that can make you forget the last ten minutes. The passages and caves are so convoluted that anyone who tries to map them goes mad. The elite families, each the master of a different rare art, are at constant war with each other for control of the city, and for the favor of the Grand Steward. The Grand Steward is so obsessed with staying in control that he has artificially extended his life and cleaved himself into two beings so that one part of him will always be awake. Intrigue, blackmail, coercion, and assassination are all daily events.
“’It draws you in. You twist your mind into new shapes. You start to understand Caverna…and you fall in love with her. Imagine the most beautiful woman in the world, but with tunnels as her long, tangled, snake-like hair. Her skin is dappled in trap-lantern gold and velvety black, like a tropical frog. Her eyes are cavern lagoons, bottomless and full of hunger. When she smiles, she has diamonds and sapphires for teeth, thousands of them, needle-thin.’
‘But that sounds like a monster!’
‘She is. Caverna is terrifying. This is love, not liking. You fear her, but she is all you can think about.’”
The members of the elite class are trained in a wide array of facial expressions, each carefully donned for the greatest manipulative effect, while the drudges are not allowed to have visible emotion and must wear only five approved faces. And yet, there is no stark dividing line here of evil vs. downtrodden. The characters on both sides are three-dimensional and grey. In many ways, the elite are just as trapped as the drudges or even more so. The Grand Steward may be the most imprisoned of all. Frances Hardinge draws him so subtly and with so much nuance; it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him. He even made tear up in one scene.
As bizarre as the setting and doll-like faces of the characters are, this book brought me home to reality so many times. Frances Hardinge quite clearly thought a great deal about her premise and all the ramifications of being the one person always expressing her complete truth in a society of fabricators. Neverfell is feared and pitied. The ruling families aren’t sure whether to assassinate her, imprison her indefinitely, or manipulate her for their own ends. Neverfell, confined to a very small set of tunnels for her whole childhood with only a grumpy cheese artisan and several hundred feisty cheeses for company, is understandably naïve. She’s guileless and prone to trust anyone who gives her a friendly face, no matter how false. She even admits that she’s annoying, but she’s also honorable, clever, and resilient in completely unexpected ways.
“It was all very well being told that she could do nothing to make things better. Neverfell did not have the kind of mind that could take that quietly. She did not have the kind of mind that could be quiet at all.
In many respects, poor Neverfell’s overactive mind had coped with her lonely and cloistered life in the only way it could. It had gone a little mad to avoid going wholly mad. To break up the dreary repetition of the day it had learned to skip unpredictably, to invent and half-believe, to shuffle thoughts until they were surprising and unrecognizable.”
Her progress in this story is truly heart wrenching – from wide eyed hopefulness to crushing disillusionment to discriminating maturity.
The dynamic between the elite and the drudges is also explored in very interesting ways. She made me think about how jaded I sometimes feel as an adult, and how seeing things through my children’s eyes can sometimes make everything new again. She made me think about how intrinsic the ability to express ourselves is to being human and how cruel it is to take that away from someone. She made me ponder whether expressing a feeling and actually feeling a feeling are even close to being the same thing.
And this story has so much more – it’s about letting go of control and having faith. It’s about acknowledging your feelings even when they're distasteful and ugly. It's about revolution. It’s an exodus story. It’s a fast-paced twisty mystery. It’s the kind of mystery that somehow manages to slip under your radar until you’re left staring into space as all the details that you should have been paying attention to suddenly align, and your coffee cup goes crashing to the ground. And if you haven't already noticed from my excessive use of quotes, her writing is brilliant too. It's quirky and original but somehow also neat and precise. I spent equal time swooning at its beauty and marveling at its elegance.
The whole book is a masterpiece, in my opinion, but what really blew my mind was the epilogue (and not just because it felt right and necessary). In a stroke of pure genius, Frances Hardinge suddenly switches the perspective to that of an outsider for the final pages. Reading from his point of view, it suddenly came crashing down on me just how far down this particular rabbit hole I had really gone. I had fallen for Caverna and in doing so, I had gone a bit mad.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Talkdemonic - Final Russian