Once upon a time—and that is really the only way to start to talk about the fantastical world of this novel—a cheesemaker named Grandible finds an abandoned child in his labyrinthine home underground.
Grandible isn’t just any cheesemaker—he’s THE cheese artisan of Caverna, a city with no shortage of spectacular craftspeople. Behind his well-defended door, the reclusive genius makes cheeses that are the stuff of legend: the emerald-rinded Whitwhistle, which issues a fluting melody as it settles, the paralyzing Poric Hare-Stilton which Grandible puts on double duty as a booby trap, and the labor-intensive Stackfalter Stilton that needs to be turned every 141 minutes exactly—a task that requires at least two workers to accomplish. Even in Caverna, a city where artisans compete against each other in an ever-more-spectacular competition to pique the jaded interest of the city’s immortal ruler. Grandible’s talent is the stuff of legend. He could be a darling of the court, but for reasons known only to himself, he’s gone into seclusion, barricading his doors against the world outside and refusing the society of the city.
And the child, who somehow finds her way into his tunnels and survives on his potent cheeses, is not just any child. Grandible protects the girl—he calls her Neverfell—the only way he knows how—by keeping her hidden and hiding her face with a velvet mask. But safety in Caverna is an illusion, and when Neverfell follows a white rabbit out of the safety of Grandible's tunnels, she must confront a dangerous world, where Facesmiths help citizens express subtle emotion through their features, where the Kleptomancer carries out spectacular thefts, and where every person she meets is caught up in at least one scheme. As Neverfell discovers the city’s darkest secrets, she realizes that her own forgotten history is tangled up with Caverna’s treacherous past.
This book is so wonderfully, eerily weird. Hardinge is brilliant at creating creepy worlds that slowly untether themselves from reality, twisting into complex, elaborately detailed fantasy lands. (See also: Cuckoo Song, The Lost Conspiracy) Nothing is ever simply what it seems—eddies of undercurrent swirl beneath the surface of every scene, every character, and every conversation. Neverfell, whose innocence gives her power even as it puts her in danger, is a tempestuous person, as emotional and changeable as her dangerous face, but it’s the other characters who make this book come to life: staunch, angry Erstwhile who grew up one of the city’s disposable Drudges; Madame Appeline, the celebrated Facesmith whose sad, sweet faces remind Neverfell of something she can’t remember; the Grand Steward, who has lived so long that nothing interests him and he’s started plotting against himself; and Caverna herself, a living city full of literal twists and turns with plans of her own.
I kind of loved this book. It’s beautifully imagined, and the writing has a dreamy lyricism that draws you into the complicated, shadowy world of Caverna. And it's so darn interesting: It raises all kinds of questions about the ways we know ourselves and other people, the importance of feelings—even when they’re bad or unattractive, the power of words and storytelling and believing. Like most Hardinge books, it’s for middle grades with an asterisk—it’s creepy and dark, and not all readers are ready for that, but it’s also a book that young adults and even adult-adults could really love. As long as you don't mind a little time on the dark side, put this one near the top of your library list.