DISCLAIMER: There is an actual risk that one of the patient's charts in my local ER will say by tomorrow, '28yo female presents with symptoms of NyQuil poisoning, incoherently rambling about underground cities and glass faces. Poison control contacted.'
Yes, this review is written in that febrile, NyQuil-fueled fog of hazy clarity where the world becomes muted at its edges and yet everything comes into a strangely sharp focus, and brain-mouth dissociation may reach dangerous levels.
I wrote a final paper back in college with high fever and in the similar NyQuil daze, shaken by raspy cough, breathless with congestion. I got an A-plus on that paper. I could not recall writing a single word of it. Go figure.
And so NyQuil says: This book is like a breath of fresh air, the gulp of fresh water from a mountain stream, a birdsong in the sunshine (damn birds, stop chirping, there are sick and grumpy people over here!!!).
It made me wish my future hypothetical daughter were real and present - so that we could bond over reading this book, loving its every page.
An important lesson: If you ever - EVER - decide to follow the white rabbit (Oh Neverfell, you should have paid more attention to Carroll's Alice and that Neo guy of the Matrix fame), just know that your life will be altered forever. Especially if the frantic rabbit chase leads you out of (admittedly confining) security of childhood into the 'labyrinthine underground city of Caverna', where 'lies were an art and everybody was an artist, even young children,' where 'nothing [...] happened naturally or without planning,' where intrigues and scheming is the fabric of life.
Caverna is the place where madness - of the Cartographers, believe it or not! - is dangerously contagious. Just remember this as you focus in surviving:
"Trying to understand Caverna was an invitation to madness..."
'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.’
Yes, Caverna has enough literal and figurative fascinating twists to make me desperately wish for a sequel set in this universe. It definitely provided me with enough fodder for those long vivid dreams you have when you are on the verge of just falling asleep or just waking up - and it's awesome.
Caverna is not a place for the faint-hearted. It's not a place that takes kindly to preserving innocence - scheming and casual murder are your weapons of choice if you'd like to keep on living. What else would you expect from a place governed by an always-awake leader with split personality, a place that produces exploding cheeses, mind-enslaving Perfumes, memory-wiping wine and captured birdsong in a bowl of jelly? It's the place that has to rely on Facesmiths to provide you with a set of carefully crafted facial expressions (according to your status and income, of course) to convey what you want to convey without ever revealing what you are actually thinking.
"The city grows, and not just through the effort of pick and shovel. She has been stretching, spreading and contorting to make room for us all, and I think that is why geography no longer makes sense."
And now take this place where children know to bolt the doors against the assassins and sniff people to detect a trace of mind-control Perfume - and drop smack into the middle of it an 'odd and terrible child', a maddeningly naive and innocent girl without an arsenal of carefully crafted Faces - a girl whose expressions let you see her innermost thoughts rendering her unable to lie in this cunning nest of snakes that passes for a society. See what happens when she storms through Caverna like a little tornado - just buckle up because it will be a bumpy ride.
He contemplated Neverfell for a few moments through his freckling eyes.
‘Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you’re sane? That you’ve always been sane? That perhaps you’re the sanest person in the city?’
'I hope not,’ whispered Neverfell. ‘Because, if I’m sane, then there’s something wrong with Caverna, something horrible and sick, and nobody else has noticed. If I’m sane, then we shouldn’t be sitting around talking – we should all be clawing our way out as fast as we can.’
Neverfell, the girl with the titular 'face like glass', haunted by the secrets of her past that were forcibly removed from her, suffocating under well-intentioned constraints put on her for her safety and therefore insulated from the scheming on which Caverna society relies from the earliest years, is very ill-equipped for survival here. The only way she can play the never-ending Court games is by being used as a pawn - and there's no shortage of chessmasters wanting to use her just for that.
‘I lied to you and it was easy, because you believe everybody means what they say. Everyone’s lying to you, Neverfell. Everyone. And you can’t tell, because you’re just not very bright when it comes to people. Brighten up fast, or you’re done for.’
She is unrestrained, wide-eyed, excitable, naive and irritably innocent - even she can see that at times she's quite annoying.
"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."
And yet as we see her scrape her tender trusting soul on the rough edges of her world and grow some tougher protective scabs on her abraded sensitivity, as we see her learn and mature and take responsibility, we realize that the little overexcitable brat with Pippi Longstocking-like red pigtails and 'the attention span of a summer-addled gnat' did that very annoying things she's always been good at - managing to turn us into her friends.
'What don’t I understand? I know you’ve been lying to me, probably about lots of things. And I know there are probably plans inside plans inside plans, and I’m just a pawn, and that’s all I ever was. Even back when we first met. And it doesn’t matter, because you’re my friend. You’re my friend and you’re in trouble. All this while you’ve been miserable, and I’ve been too stupid to notice.’
This book had a few concepts that, like the Cartography-induced madness, played with my brain, trying if not to break it, then at least bend it into new (perhaps, Caverna-like?) shapes - not that common in books clearly aimed at children. It broke a few tropes, too - a blond pretty rich girl may nit necessarily be an embodiment of evil; a connection and warmth felt at the first glance may not lead to trust and friendship; a warm and genuine expression may hide a soul behind it so ugly that you cannot help but shudder; and overcoming being just a pawn in the games of others may lead you to an unpleasant surprise.
"For Neverfell, it is as if other people are part of her. When she believes they are in pain, it hurts her, like a wound in a pretend limb."
All I can say - I want more of Caverna, even without Neverfell. I want to see its madness again, I want to feel its soul, I want to look into the eyes of the Kleptomancer and see what looks back at me. In short, dear Frances Hardinge, if I'm really really (and I mean *really*) good this year, can I at some point expect a sequel in my Christmas stocking that I'm willing to hang up just for this occasion?