4 out of 5 stars.
I received an ARC of this work.
This is a super-fun, middle grade fantasy novel. Neverfell is a child in an underground world where artisans create the most magical, weirdest things we would ever have here on the surface.
In their world, no one has natural facial expressions. Instead, the poor and slaves in their society are allowed only a few expressions, ones of obedience and subservience. Richer people pay to learn new expressions: maybe haughty disdain or luxurious enjoyment of treats. Neverfell finds her place with cheese maker, but is told to hide her face from everyone she may encounter. She has every emotion plainly on her face and it will frighten everyone else. When her mask is ripped away, Neverfell becomes an oddity and a pawn in the underground political system.
My absolute favourite part of this novel was the world-building. The author came up with a magical society that creates marvels that are beautiful as well as manipulative. Instead of normal cheese, you have cheeses that make you hallucinate wonders, or can disarm an enemy merely with its smell. They need to be talked to and regularly bathed and turned. It produces wines that can make you forget or remember but have to be corralled from each other lest they fight, and has a cavern full of crystal trees. Harding pumped this book full of weird imaginative things that are wonderful but also dangerous. The creators get luxuries that those of use live on the surface cannot imagine, but access creates infighting between houses that produce the wonders, and someone might get murdered just to get a piece of cheese or a whiff of perfume. I love the strange things in this book.
The piece around Neverfell’s mask and a society full of people unable to express their emotions through their faces will make this an interesting read for young people and might bring up some neat discussion points. What are the advantages and disadvantages to expressing emotions through your body? Does it give people useful information? Does it make someone feel better to be able to scowl when they are angry and cry when they are sad? Servants and slaves are not allowed to show their discontent, so Neverfell teaches them how to scowl angrily and this gives them power and control over their own bodies. On the other hand, being the only one who displays emotions lets everyone know how she feels and what she is thinking. This gives them power over her. Bringing up these kinds of questions in a children’s book was a neat idea and I hope it makes some kids think.
This work also has really strong friendship themes, another bonus for me because everything I have read lately has focused on romance and little else. I want books that explore every type of relationship humans can have, not just teens kissing. This one has friendship, loyalty, and motherhood. Neverfell had to figure out who is a friend and who is just faking. She must learn to read people who are hiding behind masks like she once had to.
This series is clever and fun. It should make kids think about what self expression really means and spark their imagination. A must-read for anyone who loves the mental picture of grump cheeses needing pampering or else they will attack.