In the underground city of Caverna, the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare—wines that remove memories, cheeses that make you hallucinate, and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer, even as they slit your throat. On the surface, the people of Caverna seem ordinary, except 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 express (or fake) joy, despair, or fear—at a steep price.
Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a 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. Neverfell’s expressions are as varied and dynamic as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, except hers are entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed…
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Violence
Booklist starred (February 1, 2017 (Vol. 113, No. 11))
Grades 7-10. Published in Britain in 2012, this makes its American debut on the heels of Hardinge’s acclaimed The Lie Tree (2016). Eschewing the horror-tinged darkness of the latter, this story embraces fantasy, whimsical detail, political intrigue of epic proportions, and cheese—yes, cheese. Twelve-year-old Neverfell has been the apprentice of Cheesemaster Grandible since he found her hiding in his tunnels seven years ago. Paranoid from his years at court, he’s sealed their home off from the rest of Caverna, the underground city where they dwell. When Neverfell stumbles upon a passage out of her master’s tunnels, she’s plunged into a mad world where facial expressions are crafted and sold, and families are locked in a high-stakes game of politics and power, constantly scheming to gain the upper hand, whether through deceit or assassination. Neverfell, whose face shows her every emotion, is immediately marked as an outsider and swept into the deadly machinations of Caverna’s elite. Though wide-eyed, she’s a fast learner who refuses to be their pawn; and as Neverfell devises her escape, she uncovers earth-shattering secrets about her past and Caverna itself. Using beautiful prose, Hardinge builds a richly imagined world that twists as much as the carefully orchestrated plot. Readers will eagerly follow noble Neverfell through its tunnels, marveling at the extraordinary sights and catching their breath at her daring escapades.
Horn Book Magazine (March/April, 2017)
In this fantasy (first published in the UK in 2012), Hardinge (The Lie Tree, rev. 5/16) imagines Caverna, an underground city that thrives through its production of magical luxuries: mind-altering cheeses, wines that erase memories with surgical precision, and perfumes that influence attitudes. Perhaps these consciousness-influencing items make up for the inhabitants’ shared disability: they’re incapable of making facial expressions naturally. Into Caverna’s highly artificial court lands apprentice cheese-maker Neverfell, whose unique facial mobility and transparent feelings are so dangerous she must wear a mask. First threatened, then adopted by powerful courtiers, Neverfell penetrates the heart of Caverna’s secrets and disrupts its very underpinnings with her plan for social justice (“I want you to help me topple Master Childersin, break hundreds of laws and save as many people as will trust me”). Hardinge’s imagination here is—as ever—ebullient, lavish, and original. Whether she’s anatomizing expression as fashion accessory, describing the effects of certain wines, or likening human maturation to that of cheeses, she needles into some of our dearest desires and foibles with sharp psychological insight. Her enthusiasm for language play brightens dark Caverna with the sparkle of wit; but most notably, she suggests how fundamental to human interaction our facial expressions are. deirdre f. baker
About the Author
Frances Hardinge spent her childhood in a huge, isolated old house in a small, strange village, and the two things inspired her to write strange, magical stories from an early age. She studied English at Oxford University and now lives in Oxford, England.
Her website is www.franceshardinge.com
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