Upon finishing A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge, I had to fight the urge to immediately flip back to the beginning and start over. It was just that good. Alas, there are far too many books I want to read for only the very first time (including two of Hardinge's other novels, The Lie Tree and Fly By Night) for me to be rereading anything, even a new favorite.
A Face Like Glass is about a girl named Neverfell, who is adopted by a gruff cheesemaker after he discovers her wandering alone in his tunnels in the underground city of Caverna. Grandible is no ordinary cheesemaker, however; his cheeses have magical properties, as do the other delicacies produced by Caverna. Like their wares, the people of Caverna are unique, too; their expressions do not necessarily reflect their emotions, for expressions in Caverna are bought and sold, and must be learned... by everyone except Neverfell, who has, as the title discloses, a face like glass. This face, as one might expect, gets her in (and out) of trouble over the course of the novel.
Although the book is nearly 500 pages long, which is longer than most middle grade novels I have been exposed to, it is eminently readable. In fact, I read the first 125 pages some time ago, and then I finished the rest of the book in one (gung-ho) go. The worldbuilding is immaculate; Caverna feels to me like a place I may have visited, not merely read about. Readers learn so much about it: about its architecture, its many people, its class systems, its politics, its quirks. Neverfell bursts with life and energy, as do her friends and enemies. The magic is not only inventive, but delightful. Consider this description of a particular wine:
"Do you know how long it takes to prepare a perfect Cardlespray Wine?"
"One hundred and three years. The grapes spoil if they are exposed to loud noises, so they are tended by a silent order of monks, and all the local birds are killed. The fruit can be harvested only at night during the new moon, and must be crushed by the feet of orphans. The barrels are stored deep in the earth, and only the softest, sweetest music is played to them, continually, for over a century. And after all this, the Wine is fit to be drunk...."
Hardinge's writing is lyrical. She is a wordsmith, as skilled in the crafts of character, plot, and setting as the craftsmen of Caverna are in the crafts of cheese, wine, and perfume. A Face Like Glass is a magical read. I highly recommend it.