Tag Archives: kitschies

Kitschies Awards shortlists

It’s time for the Kitschies Awards shortlists  – always a highlight in my reading year. I’m very much looking forward to working my way through the lists.


The Red Tentacle (Novel)

  • Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith (Egmont)
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson (Viking)
  • The Way Inn, by Will Wiles (4th Estate)
  • The Race, by Nina Allen (NewCon Press)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut)

  • Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne (Blackfriars)
  • Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (HarperCollins)
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (Self-Published)
  • The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic Books)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art)

  • The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, design by Steve Marking, lettering by Kimberly Glyder (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming, cover by Ben Summers (Hodder and Stoughton)
  • Through the Woods, cover by Emily Carroll and Sonja Chaghatzbanian (Faber and Faber)
  • The Book of Strange New Things, cover by Rafaela Romaya and Yehring Tong (Canongate)
  • Tigerman, cover by Glenn O’Neill (William Heinamann)

The Invisible Tentacle (Natively Digital Fiction)

  • echovirus12, created/curated by Jeff Noon @jeffnoon, Ed @3dgriffiths, James Knight @badbadpoet, violet sprite @gadgetgreen, Richard Biddle @littledeaths68, Mina Polen @polen, Uel Aramchek @ThePatanoiac, Graham Walsh @t_i_s_u, Vapour Vox @Wrong_Triangle
  • Kentucky Route Zero, Act III, by Cardboard Computer
  • 80 Days, by Inkle Studios
  • Sailor’s Dream, by Simogo


Things I read on the internet – week ending 26/1/2014

Theory and Practice

12 Fundamentals of writing “the Other”(and the self). From D J Older, co-editor of the forthcoming Long Hidden anthology

Adam Roberts revisits a previous blog article about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, adds current thoughts.

The first in a new series from Alex Dally MacFarlane on Post-Binary Gender in SF

‘”I love your work, Jonathan,” she told Franzen, “but in a way you are smeared by English American literature … I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them,” she said.’ Xiaolu Guo at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

A sort-of-follow-up from Philip Hensher, which strikes me as trying to acknowledge and dodge the point all at the same time.


The Fantastic Foresight of Katherine MacLean by Andrew Liptak (Kirkus Reviews)


The shortlists for the Kitschies 2013 have now been announced, along with some special mentions.

Newly Published

International Speculative Fiction no. 5 is now available

One for the Diary

Comics Unmasked. Forthcoming exhibition at the British Library. And more information via the Forbidden Planet blog.


Oddly mesmerising evil brain from outer space

Kitschies 2013 – shortlists announced

The Kitschies, the annual prize for books containing elements of the “speculative and fantastic” are proud to announce their shortlists for the most “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” fiction of 2013.

This year’s shortlists are selected from a record 234 submissions, coming from over fifty different publishers and imprints.

The Red Tentacle (Novel), selected by Kate Griffin, Nick Harkaway, Will Hill, Anab Jain and Annabel Wright:

• Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
• A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
• Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape)
• More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker)
• The Machine by James Smythe (HarperCollins / Blue Door)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut), also selected by the above panel:

• Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)
• A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47 North)
• Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
• Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
• Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Atlantic)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art), selected by Craig Kennedy, Sarah Anne Langton, Hazel Thompson and Emma Vieceli.

• Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill (Gollancz) / Design and illustration by Sinem Erkas
• The Age Atomic by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot) / Art by Will Staehle
• Homeland and Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (Titan) / Design by Amazing15
• Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key) / Art by Gianmarco Magnani
• Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human (Century) / Art by Joey Hi-Fi

The winners will be announced in a ceremony at the Seven Dials Club on 12 February. The winners will receive a total of £2,000 in prize money, as well as one of the prize’s iconic Tentacle trophies and bottles of The Kraken Rum.

The Kitschies, sponsored by The Kraken Rum, are now in their fifth year, with previous winners including Patrick Ness, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville and Nick Harkaway.

– END –

Further information for editors:

“This was an awe-inspiring year. For the Red Tentacle, we could have built a shortlist composed purely of iconic names, and we had to reject at least one book which may be a work of genius because it did not entirely mesh with the Kitschies’ cardinal virtues: ‘intelligent, entertaining, and progressive’. The debuts are pretty breathtaking, too: broad in scope, deft and compelling. It’s been an education as well as a privilege to judge the prize, and a vast relief not to be in competition with these writers.” – Nick Harkaway

“What an honour to be confronted with so many beautiful books, it can make any creator feel…quite inadequate. Their overall quality made judging a tricky business, and many post-it notes were lost to the greater good, but our entire judging panel was professional, balanced and placated with The Kraken Rum. We didn’t even draw blood.” – Emma Vieceli

For more information about the prize, its criteria or the judges, please see: http://www.thekitschies.com

A breakdown of this year’s submissions is available:

More about The Kraken Rum:

The finalists’ covers can be downloaded here:

‘We were all monsters and bastards and we were beautiful’ – Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina.

91007-seraphinaI had an odd moment of déjà-vu when I began reading Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina.Its narrative tone reminded me intensely of something else, and I eventually realised that it was Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time (1939). At first glance, it would be difficult to find two novels with less in common but I do think they have certain similarities, which raises some interesting questions about the way in which children’s (or teen or young adult) fiction has or hasn’t changed over the last seventy years. They also have one very obvious difference which will be addressed in due course.

Uttley’s novel is either a ghost story or time-travel, depending on how you choose to frame it; its main character, Penelope Taberner Cameron, is sent to recuperate with relations who live in the ancient Derbyshire farmhouse of Thackers (Dethick, in reality, and now owned by Simon Groom, one-time Blue Peter presenter). Uttley’s childhood memories and her great love of the history and country customs of her home county are very much to the fore in her evocation of life at Thackers, and her emphasis on the persistence of old practices, domestic and religious.

The house was once owned by the Babington family, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth became the focus of a plot, organised by Anthony Babington, to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from imprisonment at nearby Wingfield Manor. It is to this historical moment that Penelope finds herself travelling, a process managed simply by her walking into a room or turning a corner in the passage and finding she has gone back in time. Through her the reader learns the story of Anthony Babington though, perhaps wishing to spare her child readers some anguish, the story closes before Babington is imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed in a fashion so horrible Elizabeth ordered his co-conspirators to be hanged instead. Instead, we are left to breathe easy because snow has concealed the tunnel’s entrance, while Francis, Anthony’s younger brother, who has fallen in love with Penelope, as she has with him, is, we are told, making plans to go to Paris, as the young men of Catholic families so often did.[1]

Seraphina, on the other hand, could be described as an out-and-out fantasy. It deals with the life of Seraphina Dombegh, the only child of a father who is both emotionally absent and over-protective, and a mother who died giving birth to Seraphina. Through her own determination, Seraphina has pursued an education – she is a talented musician – and has found herself a job as assistant to Viridius, the court composer. What drives the novel, however, is the need to discover the murderer of the Prince of Goredd, a mystery in which Seraphina, although by her own admission, a nobody at court, becomes involved. Goredd’s death threatens the peace that has been established between humans and dragons, some of whom live among the humans, taking on human form.

So, let us begin with the similarities between the novels. Both are told in the first person, though from what point in the narrators’ lives is hard to tell. The tone in each case is detached, cool, leaning towards the analytical, as though they are observing the experiences of their younger selves with a certain wry amusement at the follies of youth.

Both protagonists are solitary, bookish, imaginative, the difference being perhaps that for Penelope it is actively her choice and she doesn’t seem to mind either being alone or else being thought odd. Indeed she seems to be proud of her strangeness; in a family of three children, and the youngest to boot, it marks her out, makes her distinctive. Seraphina, on the other hand, is by her own admission incredibly lonely. Her solitary life has been forced on her by her father, for reasons which have only recently become clear to her. Throughout her life he has seemed to obstruct her every wish and she has, according to her own account, been forced to find ways round his prohibitions, often forcing him into acquiescence by directly challenging him.

In older children’s books, serious illness often prompts the transformation which places the child in a position to begin their adventures. In the case of A Traveller in Time, both of Penelope’s visits to Thackers are precipitated by illness, while for Seraphina, witnessing the Treaty procession in which the dragons shed their human form brings about the first of her mysterious visions, and causes a physical transformation, namely the appearance of scales, and hence the revelation that her mother was a dragon and she is thus part dragon. However, whereas for Penelope it is a time of excitement and discovery – her Aunt Tissie knows about the ghosts, is aware that Penelope can see the Babingtons and is thus a kind of guarantor for her safety in that other world – for Seraphina, the dangers only multiply as she must now conceal her scales as well as learn to cope with the side-effects of her visions, which are severe. Her guide in this new world in which she finds herself is her uncle, Orma, a dragon constantly under scrutiny for his undragonlike behaviour (of which more in due course) and thus less helpful as a guarantor of her safety, though he is not entirely without resources.

Another thing which marks both narratives is what one might call privileged access. In Penelope’s case, she has extraordinary contact with all levels of society at Thackers and though it is initially noted that she should not be in this place or that, it is remarkable how quickly everyone accepts her intermittent presence, even though her tie to the place is through Cicely Taberner, the housekeeper and a servant, albeit a very powerful one. One might argue that Penelope’s friendship with Francis Babington grants her a kind of social passepartout but even that friendship is effectively a narrative contingency. The narrative does to some extent acknowledge Penelope’s extraordinary privilege, and at least one character is deeply suspicious of it, although cast as the villain of the piece for making the point that this is all wrong, but Uttley mostly seems engaged in trying to elide or excuse the point.

Seraphina, on the other hand, although she might well have more right to claim some sort of privilege, given her father’s role, given her talent, given her job (and through that access of a sort to the members of the royal family) can’t stop pointing out that she is a nobody. Of course, she has been taught to be as self-effacing as possible as a survival mechanism, but there is something about this constant underlining of the fact that becomes wearing in the narrative. (We see a form of this privilege again in the way in which Seraphina’s dragon blood manifests itself, with her scales neatly, conveniently, appearing on those parts of her body that can be covered; no visible disfigurement will impair her ability to function.)

And the point is, in both narratives, that Penelope and Seraphina need this level of access in order to tell their stories. It’s a matter of narrative contingency but in the case of Penelope in particular we’re being asked to take a rather large step in terms of willing suspension of disbelief in accepting this situation, though it can in part be balanced by the belief that Penelope is dealing with ghosts or, just possibly, figments of her own imagination. For Seraphina, this is real, and indeed in deadly earnest, as her own safety may depend upon it.

And, finally, there is the upstairs-downstairs romance with, in Penelope’s case, the added difficulty of its also being across time and therefore doomed to failure. Which, of course, it should be, the implicit moral in A Traveller in Time being that one must know one’s place, in time and socially. There is no way that Francis and Penelope could ever have married, even had they been in the same time period. The message is clearly that one can dream but that is all one can or should do. Anything else would be inappropriate. For Seraphina, however, things are different: Lucian Kiggs, the bastard prince, can show an interest in her, an interest which she can in theory reciprocate, though of course her mixed parentage may well get in the way of this. On the other hand, Kiggs’s illegitimate status may offset that. Nobility of birth is in this instance trumped by outsider status.

So far, so good. This is a narrative pattern that has demonstrably persisted for more than seventy years, and probably longer than that. It’s a serviceable narrative template, conventional, familiar, if not that demanding and for Uttley’s novel, it provides the solid structure to support the all-important domestic and historical detail. But I find myself wondering why Hartman is still using it.

However, it is here that the stories do begin to diverge, on what might be called the political level. The Babington family and their loyal servants, including the Taberners, are already out of step with the times by keeping to the old Catholic ways, and an educated reader knows that the weight of history is already against them. The plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots will be discovered, the fate of Anthony Babington, and indeed of Mary herself, is already known. Without transforming A Traveller in Time into an alternative history, which is clearly not Uttley’s intention, there is no other way the story can be played out. Whatever Uttley’s political and religious views might be, I am sure her attachment to the story has more to do with its Derbyshire setting and childhood memory than with any need to make redress for the treatment of Catholics during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Uttley knows how her story will play out and is content to interpolate it into the broader sweep of history, without questioning its presence.

In Seraphina, things are much more complex and troubling, politically and theologically but first it might be worth looking at the world in which Seraphina lives. The setting might be most aptly described as ‘cathedral city gothic’. At times it reminded me of Elizabeth Goudge’s Towers in the Mist and The Dean’s Watch, and on occasion Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, while at other times there is a quick dash of something steampunkish in the quigs’ love of mechanisms. On the whole, though, we’re dealing with something ‘medieval’ in the sense that it has all the visible trappings of medievalism: characters wear ‘houppelandes’, there are knights, albeit banished ones, and the presence of a Christian church much engaged with saints. Goredd (and note the Celtic inflection of that double d) seems to be a mature medieval world which has persisted for many centuries, although technology seems to have remained mostly in stasis among the humans, and yet, at the same time, there is something that smacks of children’s fairytales; take, for example, the almost ethereal loveliness of Princess Glisselda, whose name smacks of something from Disney. This society may be coherent within fictional terms, but I doubt it persists beyond the book.

And here indeed be dragons. Dragons that can transform themselves into human shape if need be. Dragons that have signed a peace treaty with the humans. Dragons who have sophisticated technologies. Dragons who live among humans, though rather as we might equip a cat with a bell to alert its potential prey, and a leper with a bell to warn people away, so dragons come equipped with bells to alert us to the fact that they are not what they seem when they are moving among humans (except, of course, for the few given permission to conceal their origins). I wonder how many people raised an eyebrow when they read ‘Orma didn’t need facial hair to pass (12)’ or at the point where Orma speculates as to whether the saints whose writings inveigh against human-dragon miscegenation (and this word is used specifically) ‘had experience with half-breeds (36)’. We are no longer in a world where a girl can dally artlessly with an historical character but in a world where something altogether darker is taking place.

But how are we supposed to read the dragons in this novel? Hartman’s choice of terms like passing prompts me to think first of the Jim Crow laws and light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. Similarly, when I see ‘half-breed’ I immediately think of how this word is used with reference to Native Americans, and in particular how half-breeds have often been seen as outsiders in native and Anglo-European society. Should I read the quigs, the dragons who cannot transform, as representing for undocumented immigrants and border-crossers? For that matter, given that faint hint of Celticism in Goredd, do we read the dragons as Welsh, oppressed yet again by the English? And that’s before we get on to the form of Christianity practised in the novel, a mix of the Celtic and the Catholic, filled with many obscure saints, not a few of whom appear to be dragon-slayers, or useful when one needs to invoke religion in order to attack the Other. One might in passing think of the right wing’s appropriation of St George’s flag; one might think also of how a crudely God-fearing community turns against a belief.

Dragons are of course the traditional fairytale enemy of humanity. We have dragons who must be appeased with human sacrifice, and dragons who dispense wisdom, dragons who represent order, dragons who symbolise chaos. In Seraphina, we have two extremes. On the one hand, the quigs lurk on the edges of society, like beggars, barely able to communicate with anyone, shunned by pretty much everyone where possible. They are, if you like, the descendants of Tolkien’s Smaug – only the nature of the hoard has changed. On the other, the dragons are disguised as humans, but not so far as I can see, lower-class humans. They have a diplomatic or academic role, mediating between dragons and humans, studying humans. They are represented as unfailingly logical, baffled by the morass of human emotions. They appear to be thinking machines made of meat. They are essentially Other.

The reader’s contact with dragons is of course mediated through Seraphina, the half-breed, positioned as the bridge between the two groups, but it is a very particular view. For all that Seraphina protests that she is a court nobody, for all that we are told that Orma is not a conventional dragon, we are nonetheless dealing with people who possess privilege, who are variously protected, people who are atypical within their communities, and we are then expected to use this as the point from which to extrapolate ideas about all dragons. Even in fictional terms this is too easy, too reflexive.

One might argue that Hartman is making the point that this is what we already do, but that argument can be countered by saying yes, so why do it all over again? One cannot overlook the fact that this novel is told exclusively from a human point of view; even Seraphina is identified from the beginning as a human with dragon scales rather than as a dragon with human skin. We never see the dragons on their home ground. To parley with humans they must mimic humans. The frame of the argument is always human, never dragon. To sympathise with the dragons is not only to fraternise with the enemy but also, perhaps, to become like them. On top of that, the view we receive is broadly that of the governing classes, the insiders. The ‘lower orders’ are anxious about the presence of dragons, even though many of them are far too young to remember the war with the dragons, thus it is not clear what their anxiety arises from. The Sons of St Ogdo roam the streets, pretty much looking for dragons to beat up. One is, I think, invited to substitute other names in that sentence, and to an extent the analogy exists, but it is a crude, one size fits all, approach, and one could wish that Hartman had been bolder in dealing with this. Her intended audience would, I’m sure, be sufficiently sophisticated to handle it.

As if this external struggle weren’t enough, we must also deal with Seraphina’s struggle with the voices in her head. They are not, as we might suppose, hallucinations or visions but actual voices, the thoughts of other human-dragon … what do I call them? Mixed breeds, half breeds, hybrids? Shall I be coy and say ‘those with dragon blood in them’, as though they’ve had a transfusion? Is there even a word for them? Does there need to be? Except, of course, we must delineate the differences, with words, with labels. Hartman settles for ‘half dragon’, a term with pros and cons, depending on your viewpoint.

As it turns out, there’s a fairly large group of half dragons, passing for human, some even in the court itself, but also apparently representing human diversity in that they are male, female, not all from Goredd (at one point Seraphina notes how one of them, Lars, speaks Goreddi as though his mouth is full of pebbles; there is no sign of her attempting to speak Lars’s own language, which seems to be related to German, so we can throw another binary opposition on the rapidly increasing pile). As Seraphina’s hallucinations are transformed into people it is perhaps worth noting that some of them at least exercise autonomy so they aren’t precisely Seraphina’s ‘gang’ but the sense of her authority persists.

And on top of all that, there’s also a murder mystery to solve, almost the least interesting thing about the whole novel, although it is a competently executed mystery thriller. On the other hand, there is no denying that the novel’s ending is as convenient as that of A Traveller in Time. Seraphina and Kiggs may be in love with one another but he is also Princess Glisselda’s fiancé and she is now a terribly young ruler of Goredd and needing all the help she can get. For now, Kiggs and Seraphina must bide their time; this is another relationship which must remain invisible.

So, what to make of Seraphina, a finalist in the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for first novel? Entertaining? Yes, very. For all it seems to reach right back to Uttley’s novel, I like the narrative tone, and Seraphina is, in her way, a narrator appealing in her determination to succeed and in her honesty about her struggle. Intelligent? That’s more problematic in that Hartman is dealing with difficult issues, which I applaud, but in ways that frequently make me deeply uneasy. It’s a well-written novel, one overflowing with thoughts and ideas, but one which always pulls back just when things are getting satisfyingly complicated.

Which leads me finally to ‘progressive’. Is this novel actually progressive? Superficially, it might seem to be, given the issues it appears to be tackling, but as I hope I’ve shown, superficiality is very much the problem. We skate across the surface of the issues rather than going into them in too much detail, and we tackle them from a very particular point of view: bluntly, a white Euro-American point of view. The subaltern dragon is mediated through the mimic human. The assumption, no matter how little it is actually articulated, is that human form trumps dragon form. Dragons need to learn from humans, particularly about such complex things as emotions, but humans seem not to need to take anything from dragons. Even the dragons regard humans as superior.

And then there is the narrative structure: however embellished it might be we still have a narrative shaped by privilege, and a romance that can never come to fruition because of the relative imbalance between the statuses of the two participants.

In all, this is a novel that could have gone far but doesn’t go far enough.

[1] I have found it difficult to establish what happened to the historical Francis Babington, though he was later described as being ‘unthrifty’, which is presumably in part why the house and lands passed out of the family during that time.

Blessed Are The Cheesemakers – Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass

On 1st April, I promised (absolutely no joke) that soon, soon I would be reviewing the rest of the shortlists for the Kitschies’ Red and Golden Tentacles for 2012. I had already begun with my review of Juli Zeh’s The Method back in February but there simply hadn’t been time to read everything else before the deadlines. Consequently, these reviews should not be seen as an exercise in determining after the event who should have won but the novels will be considered in the light of the awards’ rubric, namely that “The Kitschies […] reward the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic.”

I want to think a little more about that rubric before I get down to critical business because I have to admit that when I was writing the Zeh review I had a certain amount of trouble with the idea. Intelligent – no problem; entertaining – well, The Method is not precisely a barrel of laughs, so I interpreted that as meaning ‘a satisfying read’, and in fact I find the satisfaction grows every time I think about the novel, so I think I got that right.

But “progressive”? It’s a term I associate primarily with US politics but in terms of fiction? The Method is an intensely political novel, and I had no problem reading it in those terms, not least because of its strong advocacy against state interference in matters of individual choice. At the same time, as I read the shortlists I found myself frequently asking ‘how is this progressive?’, only to realise that for some reason I’d automatically assumed that in this context “progressive” must mean “experimental” and refer to the way in which the novel was written rather than the subject matter. Which, given the fact that the novels I’ve read so far are fairly traditional in their construction, i.e. linear, was a little puzzling.

Having said that, “progressive” is a slippery term – to describe something as progressive is to suggest that it advocates change, improvement, reform, enlightened ideas, and so on, or alternatively, that being progressive is to be opposed to wanting to maintain the status quo. All of that could apply to form or content.

So, in part, as I work my way through these shortlisted novels, I’ll be thinking about what “progressive” might mean.

Blessed Are The Cheesemakers – Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass

A Face Like Glass (Macmillan, 2012), shortlisted for the Kitschies’ Red Tentacle, is the first of Frances Hardinge’s novels that I’ve read; it was not love at first sight. Indeed, to begin with I was rather afraid it was turning into “Silas Marner, with cheese” or possibly, given the tunnels and the fact that Grandible the cheesemaker reminded me of Badger, “Wind in the Willows, with cheese”, hardly surprising given he uses “Face 41, the badger in Hibernation”, or even “The Waterbabies, with cheese”. None of these possibilities came to pass (mercifully, I have to say) but I was still uncertain as to why this novel was proving so difficult to get through, especially when there was so much about it which ought to delight me: subterranean world (perhaps a little too obviously called Caverna); the faux-Dickensiana (so sue me, but I do like that kind of thing); the urban, if not Gothic, fairytale flavour of the whole thing; a fascination with wordplay, particularly in the construction of cheese names; and of course, Neverfell, the heroine of this story, named for the vat of cheese into which she did indeed fall.

While I enjoyed Grandible’s initial travails, hunting the mysterious presence in the cheese tunnels, it is Neverfell’s first appearance, after being hauled unceremoniously from the vat of curds, which remains with me. “It didn’t answer, but sat quivering like a guilty blancmange and staring from under pale soupy eyelashes” (4). One could pause for a moment to ask oneself what a guilty blancmange might look like, but to pause is to begin to question, and to some extent this novel relies on the reader’s being constantly willing to hurry onto the next fresh wonder, rather like Neverfell herself, once she takes centre stage seven years later.

In a recent interview, Hardinge herself describes Neverfell as being like a “caffeinated squirrel”, rushing ever onwards to the next new thing. At the beginning of the novel Neverfell is described as having “made her mind into a scrapbook, busy filling it with the fragments, stories, rumours and reports she could scavenge from talking to the delivery boys […] and failing that the wild scribblings of her own imagination” (8). But set that alongside her living “in a quiet pragmatic terror of those rare times when her persistence or puppy-clumsiness pushed Master Grandible into true anger” (9). Only a few pages in I already found it difficult to believe that Neverfell was capable of doing anything quietly, and indeed I’d argue that to the end of the novel, the biggest problem she has, insofar as it is a problem, is that she cannot dissemble or conceal her inner thoughts; not just in terms of facial expressions, hence the “face like glass”, but on some deeper level, and nor can she hold back, at least not without a very conscious effort in doing so.

On the one hand, I wonder how it is that Neverfell has preserved her zest for life through seven years of comparative seclusion with a man who seems to be remarkably taciturn but who, unlike Silas Marner, has not been particularly softened by his adopted child’s enthusiasm for everything; on the other, as she clearly has survived intact, one begins to wonder if Neverfell doesn’t in fact fall into the category of child prodigy, despite Hardinge’s dismissal of prophecy as a driver in fiction. Yet it’s hard to get past Neverfell’s arrival in Caverna, or indeed her preservation for so long as anything other than an implicit prophecy of Caverna’s downfall, simply because of her physical presence as an Outsider in a place that has shut itself off from the world. Having said that, there is something almost painfully honest in Neverfall’s continual embracing of unsuitable but suitable family figures: Maxim Childersin, Madam Appeline, Zouelle, even while she has failed to recognise the understated but genuine regard in which the likes of Master Grandible and Erstwhile hold her. Of course that is also a well-known trope but here it seems to work, perhaps because Neverfell is so open, has so little experience with which to compare what she sees around her.

For the reader, at any rate for the older reader, much of what we see is only too familiar. There is a clear divide between the upstairs world of the artisans and the downstairs world of the drudges. Having withdrawn from the world, the artisans have transformed themselves into a craft aristocracy, reminiscent of the medieval guild system, with the peasant drudges firmly at the bottom of the pile, and the servants really not much better. Again the fairytale element comes into play as the servants and drudges finally rise up against their masters, with the cunning twist that their insurrection is the means to a rather different end, not a means in itself.

And yet, for all that the artisans might be considered to be doing a day’s work in creating wines, perfumes, cheeses, there is a sense that much of this work is a matter of vanity rather than genuine endeavour, given that most of it is intended for export to the outside world which they otherwise eschew, and that their withdrawal into Caverna was a purely economic decision to begin with. Indeed, for anyone who may retain a romantic idea of the guild system, preserving the rights of the trained worker, Caverna represents a parody of that idea: William Morris would despair though possibly not actively turn in his grave. One of the strengths of this novel is the way in which Hardinge highlights the insularity of Caverna, and the dangers this brings with it. It needs a Neverfell, blissfully unaware of the effect of her facial honesty, to bring down a world so controlled that everyone must learn facial expressions in order to survive, and where the naked truth is literally intolerable.

A major weakness, though, is that A Face Like Glass seems to be overloaded with plot (and detail as well; I felt they were often fighting with one another for supremacy, and frankly the detail, which I enjoyed more, seemed to be winning. Or maybe I just like novelty). I lost track of the number of times Neverfell was either kidnapped or on trial, or trying to escape. At one point I became briefly but completely lost as to exactly who had got her this time, and occasionally felt that capture was substituting for lack of other possibilities. I wonder too about what could be called Neverfell’s political awakening. It is both splendidly utopian and yet somehow unrealistic, or possibly I am too old, too sceptical, and frankly too cynical to fully buy into it, no matter how much I would like to. I couldn’t help thinking that the Kleptomancer’s subtle takeover of Caverna was rather more realistic, the sort of thing that is all too often concealed behind utopian irruptions.

I also found myself faintly uneasy yet rather taken with the response of the Outsiders who first meet the drudges of Caverna when they emerge. Of all things, I found myself wondering abut the faeryfolk in Hope Mirrlees’ Lud in the Mist: read “cheese” and “wine” for “fruit” and you might almost be seeing the other side of the equation in which the arrival of fruit brings with it chaos, much as its leaving Caverna is a matter of business for a society constrained by an overwhelming desire for conformity.

It’s difficult to sum up my feelings about A Face Like Glass. There were questions I had which were not answered, moments when I felt intensely irritated, other moments when I was barely hanging onto the story’s thread. At times the politics seemed naive. And yet, and I admit to being faintly annoyed by this at times, once I finally got into it, there was something oddly compelling about the story, most likely Neverfell’s very unpredictability. One could make a case for that being mapped into the storytelling itself though I think that would be to excuse the fact that the novel itself is mildly out of control: just because your protagonist is running wild this doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative should as well. There was also a sense of richness which didn’t always sit well with my own more austere literary digestion. Playfulness sometimes teetered on the brink of tweeness, and sometimes fell over, especially in the choice of names. Having said that, I don’t recall us ever criticising Dickens for this. In the end, I have to settle for a qualified enjoyment of this novel, liking it in spite of myself

To read Tom Pollock’s interview with Frances Hardinge, go here