Have you ever imagined how it would have been like to live during the 18th or 19th centuries?
Well, that probably happens to each and every one of us, every time we read a historical romance, right?
Now imagine all of that... ambience, but instead of having the sky and earth for background, imagine it taking place below ground... among the rocks and earth.
Just like what happened throughout history, in this story Caverna is characterized by a very rigid class system: the working class (the drudges), the aristocrats, and the craftsman... who go around their business, just like an average "outsider".
But this isn't your "average" underground city... Caverna is almost described as a sentient being, who evolves, and recreates herself as its inhabitants numbers grow. Like a Goddess, she's to be respected and feared. And there are those determined to protect and defend her. At all costs.
But, not only are Caverna's descriptions almost magical, almost everyone who lives inside her has amazing skills.
There are cheeses that can give you visions!
Wine than can restore or rob one's memories, fragrances so intoxicating that can leave you with no free will whatsoever...
"..but only in Caverna were there masters of the Craft, capable of making wines that rewrote the subtle book of memory, cheeses that brought visions, spices that sharpened the senses, perfumes that ensnared the mind and balms that slowed ageing to a crawl."
There's only one small problem with Caverna: people don't have facial expressions. This means that they don't know how to express sadness, joy, anger, if the "expression" isn't taught to them .
Now, this is the one feature in the book, that I would have liked to see being more developed.
Why is it so? Was it always like that? Did the people in Caverna, one day woke up, and everything was the same to them?
Frances Hardinge writing is beautiful and intoxicating, and the story is amazingly detailed and thorough.
Neverfell is a young girl that suddenly appears in Caverna's domains. She doesn't know who she is, and more alarming than that, one can sees what's on her mind, because she has a "face like glass".
At age five she is taken in by the cheese maker Grandible as his apprentice, and her face hidden behind a velvet mask.
What happens next, is that Neverfell's, just like Alice following the rabbit (although in this case both of them are already underground) finds herself in the middle of a dangerous adventure where she'll end up being used as a pawn by various and strange elements, forcing her to grow in a short span of time.
And grow up she does. In the end, the character's development is noteworthy. She goes from a naive girl, without a past, to someone who shakes Caverna regime and way of being, just by refusing to forget.
The way it ended...well it was bitter sweet, with some difficult revelations.
So, do not assume this is a children's tale...
Just like every society, power games are being played and injustices being committed with constant impunity in Caverna against the weakest ones.
"Different Faces" are also used as a status differentiation... while the richest have access to more than two hundred faces, the workers only are taught "five faces". A way to control rebellion.
Even so, and even though this is a wonderfully literary adventure, I can't help feeling that this story could be even better, if it had been a little shorter. Or maybe that feeling depends on how old one is. Even though amazing books are indifferent to one's age, there were parts in this one that, for me, dragged a little.
In the end, I can't help feeling that this book will be appreciated by those who love beautiful writing, a little dose of weirdness... and a bit of horror.
Not a story to be devoured all at once, but quietly enjoying all its flavours and scents...
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