A thoroughly enjoyable book, the kind that grabs your attention from page one and never lets go: the author has a great sense of pacing and rhythm, and his cunning switches in point of view between the main three characters, effected in moments of maximum tension, have the added benefit of keeping the readers going on at a fast clip while they wonder how these intermediate cliffhangers are going to be resolved.
The world is a fascinating one: while it possesses many of the “classical” characteristics of a fantasy background, it also sports several interesting details that are purposely not completely explained, leaving the readers wondering about the past events that shaped this world. To me, this is a positive feature: I don’t like to be “spoon fed” with a lot of footnotes and, still more important, those hints about the past are quite fascinating because of their indeterminate nature, and the chance for speculation that they offer. It’s possible that some of those mysteries will be explained in the following books, but for now it’s been fun to wonder about them…
The city of Anaskar, the principal location of the book, is in itself a player in the story: a multi-tiered seafront city whose structure is arranged by social standing. The city is rife with political intrigue and shady dealings, and its twisting alleys and cobbled streets – described in a vivid manner – are the perfect background for the novel.
As I said, there are three main points of view: the first we encounter is mercenary Notch, a man with a troubled past that we discover bit by bit in the course of the book. In the very first chapter he’s in a cell waiting to be executed for a heinous murder he did not commit: it’s clear from the start that this is a person who has lost a great deal, and yet manages to find some cause to carry him forward, to overcome the sadness and rage of loss in favor of something higher. His character is highlighted mostly by the interaction with his comrade Flir, a small, unprepossessing woman gifted with extraordinary strength and a wry sense of humor: the exchanges between the two, the glimpses about their shared past, are among my favorite sections of the story.
Then there is Sofia Falco: a young woman thrown by circumstances into an unexpected role, one she has no preparation for, one that will require her to go against preconceived social notions and the intricacies of court politics. Through Sofia we learn about one of those interesting details I mentioned above: the rule of the land is partly based on the interaction with the titular masks, that are carved from bone and worn by specially trained people who are able to come into contact with the mask’s own… spirit, for want of a better word. The death of her older brother forces Sofia to take on the role of Protector and interact with the old mask Argeon: from what I could gather it’s a sort of symbiotic relationship that allows the Protector to tap knowledge from the past and thus offer solid advice.
And last is Pathfinder Ain: he belongs to the Medah, desert dwellers that once inhabited Anaskar and were driven away to live in the wilderness after a bloody war. The role of Pathfinders is to find access to the city and fulfill the ancient prophecy of vanquishing the old foes and regaining what was lost: Ain’s journey requires him to rely on old scrolls that seem based more on legend than fact, and on his skills as Pathfinder – a very fascinating notion about being able to feel the pathways of previous travelers on the very ground they trod on. The Medah culture is an intriguing one, and I found myself quite drawn by its descriptions: hopefully more will be explained about them in the following books, especially in consideration of some tantalizing detail that seems to hint (unless I read it the wrong way…) to a more technologically advanced past.
I’d like to spend a few more words on Sofia Falco: when I was contacted by the author about reading and reviewing his book, he asked about the “warning” on YA themes and characters contained in my submission guidelines, since Sofia is indeed a teenager and he was concerned that this might color my opinion. Let me say up front that there was no reason for concern: when I admit I don’t enjoy YA-themed stories, I mean that I prefer when this kind of character is explored in an adult way. For example, Harry Potter is a young boy whose life story is handled in an adult way; Paul Atreides from “Dune” is a teenager painted in an adult way. In other words, these characters act and are described without recurring to forced angst and constant whiny complaint about the unfairness of it all, as so many of them unfortunately are in recent YA literature.
Sofia Falco avoids this danger completely: she is young, yes, and inexperienced; when she is pushed into a role she’s not prepared for, both practically and mentally, her world falls out of kilter, and she struggles for the greater part of the book with situations that are too big for her, often forcing her to be a pawn rather than a player in the unfolding events. She’s no spunky heroine who manages to overcome huge obstacles overnight, on the contrary she learns painfully how to adapt and to deal with frustration and powerlessness: only through struggle and terrible loss does she come into her own, gaining the maturity (and hardness) needed to fulfill the role she must undertake. This kind of journey is not just totally believable, it also turns her into a fully-rounded character I can empathize with and root for.
In short, a well-crafted first novel and a great start to what looks like a promising series. Highly recommended.
My Rating: 8,5/10