The Lost Mask – Ashely Capes

24289062I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

The first book in this fantasy trilogy, City of Masks, was one of last year’s best discoveries, featuring a fascinating fantasy world in which different cultures co-exist (though not exactly peacefully) and interesting characters move in a well-crafted background. So naturally I was thrilled when author Ashley Capes contacted me with the request of reading and reviewing the ARC for the second book: my expectations were well-founded, because The Lost Mask builds from those premises and widens the scope of the narrative, bringing it to a new level.

The story starts with a leisurely pace, picking up the threads of the previous book and stepping up the rhythm as it progresses: it was quite easy to slip back into this world and I experienced no difficulty at all in reconnecting with the characters.  The situation in the multi-tiered city of Anaskar is far from settled: King Oseto, having reclaimed his right to the throne, sits uneasily on it, since the threats from his enemies, led by the slippery Vinezi and his explosive-handling accomplices, now walk hand in hand with a possible invasion from nearby Renovar, whose ships are moving closer with their deadly cargo of acor, the explosive powder that already made so many victims.  The Sea Beast’s carcass is being harvested for the precious bones that will be turned into masks, but its remains are polluting the water and the fish, so that a mysterious illness, at times deadly, hits the populace and breeds dangerous unrest. Sofia and Notch have left the city in pursuit of Sofia’s father and find themselves in hostile territory, discovering further threats to the realm and a treacherous conspiracy, while Pathfinder Ain starts the journey back to his people, with a peace envoy from King Oseto, but encounters deadly obstacles. In short, more than enough to keep this reader quite engrossed…

Where Book 1 focused mainly on three characters – Sofia, Notch and Ain – Book 2 takes a more choral approach to the story, as is only fitting, since the reader’s view of the background expands considerably here.  King Oseto is one of the figures that gain from this deeper perspective: he’s a very unusual king, since he prefers a hands-on approach to rule, which is hardly surprising considering his past life, and indeed some of the humorous highlights in the story come from his attitude and his courtiers’ dismay in Oseto’s wish to be at the center of every situation instead of handing orders down the chain of command.  There are many problems troubling him and I felt his frustration quite keenly: he wants to be a good king and a just one, as opposed to his father, and unlike the majority of rulers he knows intimately the life conditions of his subjects, but the situation is such that wherever he turns he’s met with frustrating complications and dead ends that make it almost impossible to act as he wants.  It’s through Oseto, and his attempts at connecting with the old mask Chelona (the titular lost mask) that we discover a terrible secret tied to these mysterious artifacts, a secret handed down through generations and one that throws a sinister light on them and their use.

Flir, the Renovar woman we met as Notch’s friend and ally, is also explored to greater depth: her dedication to Oseto and Anaskar is deep and knows no limits, so that she often puts her life on the line to catch dangerous Vinezi or to put a stop to his threats. There are several hints about her past and concerning some dramatic events that must have shaped her present attitude, yet none of them explain much about her apart from these tantalizing details, but I greatly enjoyed the mix of superhuman strength and gentleness, of single-minded focus and compassion that make her such a fascinating person. One I hope to get to know better in the next installment.

As for Notch and Sofia, they have created an interesting alliance: I was glad the author chose not to go down the path of a romantic relationship for them but rather decided to turn them into comrades-at-arms who know well each other’s strengths and weaknesses and can use that knowledge to create an effective team.  Notch is indeed the rock from which Sofia can draw strength when fighting her addiction or overcoming her understandable shortcomings, and this certainty helps her discover the secrets of wielding the mask Argeon: Sofia is forced to grow beyond her years in this new book, needing to become hardened to the necessities of her role and of their shared mission, and only Notch’s support, his understanding of what it means to fight, of the price one has to pay for it, helps Sofia to set aside her guilt and the despair that comes with the territory. Having lost her brother and missing the emotional support of her father, Sofia seems to have transferred those feelings on Notch who, in my opinion, is a far more deserving person than her blood relatives…

All these elements come together into a story whose pace increases exponentially: in the previous book, the author followed the main characters in alternating chapters, while here he shifts to the various situations in quick “flashes” that keep the tension at the highest level and make for compulsive reading. This is particularly true from the middle of the book onwards, culminating in the cliff-hanger ending that literally left me suspended in mid-air (and in dire need of some oxygen, as well…): every single character is last seen at some crucible while a new, unexpected player comes to the fore, and the unexpressed but clearly visible “to be continued” is one of most frustrating experiences I can recall – in a good sense, of course, but still… when does the next book come out????

My Rating: 8/10

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