Judged by Brandy Painter • find her on her blog
This is not what I was expecting. When I saw the brackets leading to the decision I would have to make, I expected to be choosing between two YA novels. To be precise, I thought this was going to be a decision between The Demon King and Jellicoe Road. I would have been a little more comfortable with writing a decision between two YA novels, even from such different genres. But this? Deciding between a YA contemporary with a dash of supernatural and a MG fantasy? I’m sorry, but one of those was going into this fight with an edge in both genre preference and age category preference.
The Cardturner by Louis Sachar is a novel about a king, a queen, and a joker. Which character is supposed to be which? Well, that’s rather hard to say as any number of them fit at different times. Alton is all three depending on what part of the story you are in. Alton is the reason I fell in love with this book back when it first came out, and is why I still love it. He holds up to a reread. I love clever, funny, lazy, passive-aggressive heroes, particularly when those heroes grow over the course of a novel while maintaining their more endearing qualities. Alton does this. He is such a loser as the story opens and yet his voice reels me in every time. It is authentic teen boy all the way. (I can name so many of the teen boys I work with who I can see in his place.) Alton, like most teens, is egocentric and a little clueless. His world expands and opens up over the course of this story thanks to his Uncle Trapp, who is not at all a beloved curmudgeonly type. He is curmudgeonly, but not in a likeable way. Their relationship is complex and layered with both of them affecting the other and neither of them admitting to or acknowledging that effect. Yet it is evident in the changing dynamic of their relationship and their relationships with those around them. I always appreciate a good multi-generational story and this is good and realistic.
The game of Bridge plays a major part in creating not only the plot, but also the themes of The Cardturner, and Sachar manipulated this brilliantly. It is not a book about Bridge, but there is an awful lot of Bridge in it, and it is all to point to Alton’s expanding universe and view on life. I love how this novel is about learning from past mistakes, planning toward the future, and making the best out of the hand you are dealt – manipulating it in any way you can to come out on top. It also explores friendship, loyalty, love, and the never-ending pursuit of knowledge.
A Face Like Glass by Francis Hardinge is a book about a child, a thief, a madman, and a spy. Which character is supposed to be which? Again, hard to say. And again the main character, Neverfell, fits each one at various points in the story. Neverfell is the type of character who drives me demented. Wide-eyed, bouncy, eager, innocent, and needy, normally she would have me rolling my eyes. My eyes didn’t even start to roll during this book, though. She ensnared me. Never once did I feel like her trusting naiveté was being stretched to the point of incredulity, either. I wanted her to see the danger in everyone, but thoroughly understood why she didn’t. Neverfell wants desperately to see the world outside her own front door and as her story unfolds, her universe continually expands. As it does, so do the dangers. But so do the wonders. The wonders of interpersonal connections, friendship, understanding, knowledge, and experience. As Neverfell experiences the world with all its joys and sorrows, it affects her but doesn’t completely change her. And I like that on top of being all the good things that drive me nuts, she is also sneaky and ruthless when it’s required.
As a fantasy novel, A Face Like Glass builds a rich and complex world. And like all good fantasy, that world mirrors our own. Caverna for all its strangeness should also be familiar. The twisted political maneuverings, the exploitation and intentional subjugation of those that can be forced to work, the falseness of society, and the power of belief in a system is brought out in every word on every page. It is done subtly, though, which is an extraordinary feat. And I love how the book never condescends to its young target audience. It never shies away from the harder more difficult truths it is trying to convey, but simply puts them in a package a child can see, understand, and accept. And running through all of the darkness and hard truths is the brightness of hope.
Both of these novels accomplish what they set out to do and do it well. They are both expertly penned, have rich nuanced characters, explore larger themes, and prod the reader to engage with the world on a grander scale. Only one can move on to the final round though, and it is going to be the one I feel did all those things better. Is my personal bias influencing my decision? Probably. I don’t think any one who knows me, and what I love, is going to be surprised.
Because it has every single thing I crave from my books and it delivered them to me in beautiful, almost perfect prose with characters I could care about and a world I could sink into and lose myself in, I choose A Face Like Glass to move on.
Congratulations to A Face Like Glass, which moves on to the final round!