Round 1, Match 3: A Face Like Glass vs. The Floating Islands

1_3Judged by Andrée • find her on Goodreads

Hello everyone!  My name is Andrée, and I’m judging one of the first round battles for Beth’s YA/MG Book Battle. I’m really bad at suspense, so I’ve decided to state my decision right from the get-go. I’ve chosen A Face Like Glass to advance to the next round.

Because I love it. Unabashedly and unreservedly.

(Fair warning: the rest of this decision will contain spoilers for both books.)

The Floating Islands is quite a good book. It’s the story of two cousins and how together they help save their country, by each following their own paths and going after what they want in life. Trei, the main character, comes to live with his uncle’s family on the Floating Islands after his parents and sister are killed by a natural disaster. As soon as he arrives, he becomes obsessed with the kajuraihi, the flying men of the islands, and is determined to be one of them. This wish is somewhat complicated by the fact that he’s only half-Islander, his father being from a rival country. He makes friends with his cousin Araenè, who is not looking forward to her lot in life as a well-bred woman in society and so dresses up as a boy to attend lectures on cooking at the university. Both of their lives are further complicated when the islands are attacked by Tolounn, Trei’s former home country.

Generally, I really liked the universe that is created in this book. Some of the magical system is neat, and the dragons are fun. In the end, the book ends up being about a lot of things. And I think some things end up working far better than others. For example, the description of Trei going to the special school to learn to fly is particularly well done. The mechanics of the magic flying and how it works are well explained, as are the descriptions of the boys he meets there and makes friends with. I found those sections were some of the best in the first part of the book.

The book also deals with the idea of divided loyalties well. During the war, Trei is torn between his new loyalty to the islands where he’s found a home, and his loyalty to the country where he was born but then subsequently rejected after his family was killed. I thought that most of the political elements of the book were well done. The politics of the world are most prevalent in the last quarter of the book, which is also when I thought the book its strongest. Trei and his flying master as prisoners of war was excellent. So was the inner conflict of Trei’s friend, one of the Island princes, between what he wants to do and what he has to sacrifice out of duty his country. The discussion of the Toulonnese opinions on the honour of war, and appropriate conduct towards an enemy, was also really interesting. One of my favourite scenes in the book was Trei and his flying master negotiating a release with the Toulonnese Little Emperor.

However, upon finishing the book, I wondered if maybe it tried to be about too much, or perhaps more accurately, if too many things happened, such that some of the things then couldn’t be effectively fleshed out (e.g. Trei’s sister who painted was discussed a lot in the first half of the book, and then not really mentioned again). I found this more obvious with Araenè’s story than with Trei’s. She is a girl who doesn’t want to live the life that is set out for her, one where she finds a good husband and raises a family. First she wants to be a chef, then later she becomes accepted to the hidden school for mages when her magical talent surfaces, both of which are generally only choices open to boys, and which her parents would not approve of for her, and never allow.

Now, I’m assuming this was a deliberate writing choice, done so that Araenè’s ability to find her place in the hidden school (which was open to her only after her family died), paralleled Trei’s ability to find his place among the kajuraihi (which was open to him only after his family died). But it wasn’t a writing choice I found particularly effective. Prior to her parents’ death, the book hints that Araenè’s mother is aware of her daughter’s unhappiness (e.g. her mother finds a broach of Araenè’s left on her dresser when Araenè was dressed as a boy and couldn’t wear it). Araenè then wonders what her mother must have been thinking when she saw the broach. It’s an interesting question, and one that isn’t ever answered, because her mother dies soon after. I found Araenè’s parents’ death a little convenient (and entirely too much like a plot device). She decides to go to mage school at least partly because the only other option is Trei quitting the kajuraihi to look after her. It feels less like her deciding this is a thing she wants, and more, “Well, this is the least terrible of the options presented to me.” I think I would have preferred it if the book had dealt more with the conflict between wanting to go to the magic school and her family’s expectations (which is essentially Prince Ceirfei’s story). For Aranenè, deciding to go to mage school feels like less of a choice, given that there’s essentially no other option. As a result, I was uncertain, even by the end of the book, how much Araenè wanted that life. She wanted it more than being a housewife, but…

I was also not particularly impressed with how the book described the magic system. It’s essentially undescribed for the first three quarters of the book, beyond a couple of vague references to spheres and rock. Then, when the islands are attacked and all the mages have to mobilize to defend their country, none of the things they were doing felt particularly impressive or difficult because the reader had absolutely no previous knowledge of how difficult magic was, or really how the magical system worked. The school itself is described a little (its most distinguishing feature appears to be magical doors, as far as I can tell), but because Araenè only gets there midway through the book (for the first half, she wants to be a chef and loves baking, something that has essentially no relevance in the second half as far as I can tell, other than she seems to experience magic through tastes and smells), the entire Araenè-as-mage-in-training section feels woefully underdeveloped. I found this particularly jarring towards the end, when her teacher accuses her of not trusting him when she won’t open her mind to him. He’d barely been in the book at all at that point, so I couldn’t really blame Araenè for not trusting him. Like the school, the reader knew almost nothing about him.

And I wanted to know more. I could have read an entire book about the hidden school, learning about the teachers and their personalities, and the students and different types of magic. As it is, I was just unsatisfied by the entire plotline.

I did enjoy the end of Araenè’s story, when it turns out her teacher knew she was a girl all along (though some of the other students find it problematic when they find out), and when she and the prince have to take over some of the diplomatic duties of the war. The scenes with Ceirfei and Araenè are really well done. In many ways, I thought Ceirfei was one of the best developed characters in the book.

To sum up, the last quarter of this book was quite good, but the setup wasn’t fleshed out enough and I wasn’t particularly engaged. Midway through the book, I was in the position where I was academically interested in what happened, but not particularly invested in any of the characters. It is a good book, and a book where I thought about some of the discussions of war and loyalty and duty and sacrifice after I finished it, but it is not a book I loved.

Which brings me to A Face Like Glass.

A Face Like Glass is a book that caused me to indulge in a fit of sulks after I read it, because I knew I was going to have to give it back to the library (s’okay though, because I’ve since ordered my own copy). It is a book that I want to coo at and stroke and tell it how pretty it is. For me, this book felt a little bit like a Dianna Wynne Jones novel by way of Connie Willis, which is meant to be the highest form of praise. It starts out as this charming story of a fantasy world, with a young female protagonist, just trying to navigate through. But unlike The Floating Islands, where I thought too much was going on and some things felt unnecessary or forgotten, in A Face Like Glass, there are a million narrative threads, some of which seem somewhat random (but delightful, and never extraneous), and then they all come together at the end when the story wraps up.

The book tells the story of Neverfell, a young girl with a face like glass, reflecting what she’s thinking. In our world, this isn’t a problem, but in Caverna, where people’s faces don’t move, it is. In Caverna, people learn and then put on faces as you would a shirt. Your face has nothing to do with what you’re thinking, and all to do with what you want to convey to the world. Faces also speak to socio-economic status, as the rich can afford to buy all sorts of faces, while the poor and the lower classes are often only taught a handful (and their expressions are those the upper classes find most appropriate for their station – the drudge class is very Brave New World-esque). Also key to his world? It has several mastercraftsmen who make things like cheese and wine, and the things made by the mastercraftsmen tend to have magic powers (e.g. there are wines that make you forget and recall things). A young Neverfell is found by Cheesemaster Grandville, who is something of a recluse and guards his tunnels and cheese secrets carefully. He decides to adopt her as his apprentice, thinking he can protect her by making her wear a velvet mask on one of the rare occasions when she has to interact with someone from the outside world. Of course, Neverfell is curious about the outside world, and one day leaves the tunnels. Her face at once makes her a curiosity and an object of suspicion.

To describe everything that happens from the time Neverfell leaves Grandville until the end of the book would take a mini-novel. I’m not even going to try. But I loved every second of the journey.

The world was well-developed from the first page, both in terms of the setting and the characters within it. I could picture the tunnels and the crotchety Grandville. I could picture Erstwhile, the messenger boy who visits the tunnels. I could imagine the Facesmiths, the people who develop new faces to sell to people. I could picture the affluent winemaking family that Neverfell is essentially indentured to after she leaves the cheese tunnels, all of whom are backstabbing and ambitious and possibly not trustworthy. I could picture the lower city where all the Drudge workers live, with their five expressions and their horrible lives. I could picture the palace with the Grand Steward’s dinners where all etiquette must be strictly observed, and everything must be perfect or you die.

I’m never going to be able to do this book justice. I’m only going to be able to try and explain why I loved the parts that I particularly loved. It’s a book full of excellence, of fabulous females, cunning characters, and delightful details. I loved so many of the details. I loved the dangerous magical wines that need to be soothed. Also, the names. The names are amazing (one of the districts in the city is called the Doldrums, which I am hoping is a Phantom Tolbooth reference).

I loved that Neverfell ends up as a food taster in the Grand Steward’s palace because she deliberately knocks over a glass of wine at one of his banquets to protect a member of the palace staff who made a mistake. And then she is only saved from (multiple) assassination attempts because of the palace staff’s protection, because she is the only person in 500 years to ever do anything like that for them.

I loved that for most of the book you never knew who was on Neverfell’s side and who wanted her dead (with a few notable exceptions). This is actually an aspect of the book that is done particularly well. Neverfell is always truthful and can’t help show her feelings, but everyone else can and does lie. And she doesn’t realize or understand that. The idea especially applies to Zouelle, one member of the winemaking family. The reader is unsure right up to the end exactly which side she’s going to be on. She’s really good at manipulation and politics and trying to get ahead. Neverfell thinks she’s her friend, but the reader is never actually certain (at least, I wasn’t).

One of the most charming aspects of this novel for me was that of the Cartographers, a group of mapmakers whose job it is to map Caverna’s tunnels. The Cartographers love Caverna so much, they devote their lives to trying to understand her and map her ways. However, because the map (unlike a roadmap) needs to be in three dimensions instead of two, they all go a bit mad, trying to make sense of the tunnel systems. Their thought process becomes circuitous and winding and dangerous to anyone who isn’t a cartographer. In fact, if one talks to a cartographer for more than five minutes, you start to think like them and essentially get infected. I loved the whole idea of the Cartographers.

Other interesting characters include the Kleptomancer, a criminal who steals absurd things at random, just to be a nuisance. Or the Grand Steward, who has ruled Caverna for centuries. He regularly hosts banquets where social protocol is so strictly observed that a single error means death, and is so paranoid of assassination attempts that he never sleeps, preferring instead to (flamingo-like) keep one half of his brain awake for twelve hours, and then switch to the other half for the second twelve, with associated impacts on his personality and mental processes. The biologist in me appreciated that detail.

But one of the things that particularly struck me was the variety of well-drawn female characters.

Neverfell’s story is wonderful. She is a delightful female protagonist in that she is neither too plucky (she freaks out almost immediately after leaving the familiarity of Grandville’s tunnels), nor too much of a pushover, (she stands up for and protects people all the time when it matters). Her defining characteristics are her loyalty to her friends and her desire to trust them. She starts out really isolated and naive, but throughout the book learns more and more about human nature, about the world she lives in and its injustices (many of which completely escaped her notice from the relative safety of Grandville’s tunnels). For the first half of the story, things are done to her and she mostly accepts them. By the end of the story, she’s using what she knows to save herself and her friends. I love her relationships in the novel. Her friendship with Erstwhile is great. Her recognition that the Drudges having so few faces is an act of control is incredibly well written. Her friendship with Zouelle is complex and makes perfect sense. Her interactions with the Kleptomancer are beyond enjoyable. And her relationship with Grandville is a thing of beauty. I love that she always thought he made her wear a mask because her face was so ugly, and when she mentions it to him at the end of the novel, he gets angry/gruff and tells her there was never anything wrong with her face. Completely charming.

Apart from Neverfell, the character of Zouelle really surprised me. I found Zouelle’s story to be particularly well told. Zouelle is being groomed to take over as head of the family when her uncle dies, much to the resentment of all other family members. She’s clever and manipulative and annoyed by Neverfell a lot (she also uses her faces on Neverfell a lot). Zouelle was one of the characters that surprised me the most in the novel, in the best possible way. And she acts as an interesting comparison to Araenè in The Floating Islands. Both girls don’t want the lives that have been set out for them, but while Araenè only changes her situation after a massive obstacle – her parents – is removed, Zouelle actively works to manipulate her own circumstances to get what she wants, even if it’s scarier and much more work. I found the second story much more interesting.

The book also features the sympathetic, and almost maternal, Madame Appleine, famous Facesmith and powerful member of Caverna society, to whom Nevervell feels an instinctive connection, though she doesn’t know why. Neverfell also has trouble finding opportunities to talk to Madame Appleine, to her particular frustration, particularly as both of them have somewhat mysterious pasts (Neverfell because she can’t remember the first six years of her life). As a sort of counterpoint to the highly polished Madame Appleine is head Enquirer Treble. I loved Treble as a character, for all that when we are introduced to her she is torturing Neverfell. Because here’s the thing, Treble is not a nice woman, but she is a straightforward one (and quite blunt, which is often entertaining). She’s ambitious. She does her job. Her job is to protect the Grand Steward and Caverna, and enforce its laws. And she’s good at it. She doesn’t do awful things to Neverfell for fun; she does it because Neverfell is legitimately suspicious. The reader knows Neverfell isn’t a threat, but Treble doesn’t. Also, I mostly loved the fact that the head of law enforcement was female.

Of course, all of the characters in this book were excellent, not just the female ones, but the females were the ones who stood out for me the most.

Also notable? The cunning plans.

I love a cunning plan. A well set up cunning plan is one of my favourite things. This book does not have one cunning plan, it has several. I am not going to tell you the details, you will have to read the book (and seriously, you all should), but I will say that they are among some of the best executed that I have ever read. They are delightful. And they work really, really well. They work well not only because they are fiendishly clever, but because the world itself and the characters therein are so well developed. There is enough detail and enough set-up to use to really craft a few great schemes. A lesser book would not be able to pull it off.

Really, the detail of the world is so wonderful and so well planned, and the story is so well executed. The characters are all great; they all feel complete and three-dimensional. The plot is complex, but not confusing. There really isn’t sufficient flail to convey my joy in how well-plotted this is.

To sum up, I love this book.

This book is amazing.

I read it in one evening, except that it wasn’t really one evening because I actually stayed up until 4:30 in the morning to finish it. When I finished it, all I wanted to do was read it again (except that it was 4:30 in the morning, and I also really like sleep). Personally, I measure whether a book is good based on two criteria: 1) Is it well written/does it have any literary merit? and 2) Did I enjoy it? As far as I’m concerned, A Face Like Glass hits it out of the park on both counts.

The Floating Islands, while it was interesting and made me think, got lost in its many narrative threads and was missing a crucial somethingA Face Like Glass made me think, had an endlessly detailed plot that never dropped a thread, and at the same time I was completely engaged in the story, and so I send it on to round 2.

Congratulations to A Face Like Glass, which moves on to Round 2!


13 thoughts on “Round 1, Match 3: A Face Like Glass vs. The Floating Islands

  1. That’s such a great point about Araenè’s parents’ death. I don’t think it was necessary at all. She still could’ve ended up at the mage school! And it WAS too bad to lose the story about her desire to cook. I loved that detail, since the “girl wants to be a mage” story isn’t a new one.

    A Face Like Glass was well done, but both books ended up kind of dragging for me past the second half, which was a shame because I enjoyed them a lot otherwise.

    The Floating Islands engaged me more on an emotional level, but, ultimately, I couldn’t object to either way this went. And, knowing Andrée, this decision doesn’t surprise me. 😀 (Also, Andrée, when I read the Diana Wynne Jones battle book, it made me think, “WAIT, has Andrée read her? Because, if not, she must for all the absurdities.” So I checked GoodReads and was happy to discover you had!)

    1. I can’t remember if I ever told Andree (or anyone!) that I think Frances Hardinge is even loopier, more complex DWJ, but I totally agree with that! I don’t really see the Connie Willis, though. If Andree shows up in the comments, I want her to elaborate on that 🙂

      1. But that is what I mean by the Connie Willis! That Frances Hardinge is like DWJ, but with the complexities of Connie Willis. Like when you read a Connie Willis book, and you’re just sort of cruising along, enjoying all the apparently random/inconsequential, and yet really charming details, and then all of a sudden, Wait! The delightful detail was a plot point! Or rather, ALL THE DELIGHTFUL DETAILS. And then you wonder why all the book are not like this.

        (Also, BETH, I seem to recall asking you if you knew of any other books like Bellwether. You said NO. LIES. YOU KNEW THIS ONE, AND YOU DID NOT TELL ME. Am now mildly irritated with you for your negligence in this regard.)

        1. I would NEVER have connected this with Bellwether in my head, though! I don’t know, I kind of associate all Connie Willis with a sense of history and/or emotion (as well as great writing and plot) and I don’t associate Hardinge with those. SORRY, THOUGH.

    2. It’s interesting that you found both books slower in the second half, because I found The Floating Islands far, far more compelling in the second half, and I couldn’t but A Face Like Glass down. Actually, our reactions to these books are essentially opposite because I had very little emotional reaction to one.

      (I have indeed read DWJ, though not the book battle book. I enjoy Howl’s Moving Castle. A lot.)

        1. I’ve read Chrestomanci (enjoyed a lot of them, but they kind of run together in my head), but not Dalemark! Dalemark is really hard to find. I may have to order them, which I am undecided if I want to do at this time.

        2. Oh, and the Connie Willis thing, I am unsure why my brain made the connection, I agree it isn’t an obvious one! But it is the thing I immediately thought of like twenty pages in. I can’t explain it. I suppose I shall forgive you for not making the exact same (and possibly illogical) connection. 🙂

  2. Andrée, you are my new favourite person! Although I’m not sure you’ve left me anything to say about A FACE LIKE GLASS next round. That’s a good problem, though!

    I agree with you (and Katie) about the way that Araenè sort of falls into the wish to be a mage, while her interest in cooking, which had seemed such a passion, is reduced to the odd in-passing tasting and giving advice to the chefs at the school. Not that people can’t have more than one interest, of course, but she never seemed to feel the slightest impulse to nurture her magic. I also totally agree about the authorial obstacle-removal feeling more than a little unnecessary there.

    I think, though, that my biggest problem was that the world-building didn’t quite live up to the potential it seemed to offer. It was only when I was rereading for the Battle that it struck me how flimsy it was in certain aspects. Things like the utter distinctions made in the character of the three countries, with Tolounn being completely about the arts of war, the Floating Islands being all about the culinary arts and Cen Periven having the magic cornered (although this doesn’t make a lot of sense as Tolounn, the Floating Islands and Yngul all have magic practitioners.) But what countries are ever this uniform? Following on the question of cultural uniformity, it seemed odd that nothing was made of how Trei’s mother met his father so she had to move to Tolounn, whose ideology she apparently didn’t share, or that subsequently she never went home to visit family, or show Trei and his sister a bit about their other background. Like you, I appreciated the depiction of Trei’s conflict over where his duty lies, but the setting-in-place of that conflict seemed a bit forced.

    In contrast, one of the many things I loved about A FACE LIKE GLASS was the thoroughness with which the (literally!) enclosed world is developed, so, as you say, you can feel you’re there. It makes the ending one of the most joyous I’ve read.

      1. Right? I’m going to have to talk about that, but in a general “it is joy” way, without giving anything away about the other awesomeness… No problem!

    1. Thank you! I really loved the book (obviously). And I am not really very sorry for rambling so long about A Face Like Glass. I loved it so. Such a delightful book. It made me happy. Plus, there are still loads more things to talk about! It is not like that book lacks detail…

      Generally, I just found The Floating Islands lacked context/detail in almost every sense (I may not have articulated it as well as I could have). Araenè’s parents often lacked detail, her sudden dropping of the desire to be a chef, even Trei seemed defined by grief and then a desire to fly. Certain ideas were well conveyed (the flying, the idea of torn loyalties), but I essentially felt the entire novel could have used context. It’s hard to explain. It’s not badly done by any means. It’s a good book, but half the time I was reading it wishing it could be just slightly better, and therefore a great book. In the end, I think it’s a case of being really close, but not quite getting there for me.

      1. That’s exactly how I felt about THE FLOATING ISLANDS. The dragons, the Hidden School, the boys’ relationships in the flying school… Oh, and the whole time after Trei gets out of the oubliette, leading up to the scene with the Little Emperor! Having such wonderful elements makes it super frustrating when the whole book doesn’t live up to those highs.

        Ha, just realised that while I thought I was likely to have the Dead Families pairing (Floating Islands and Jellicoe Road), you actually got the Makes You Crave the Food one. 🙂

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