I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
When I first became aware of The Mask of Mirrors I was intrigued because it promised to portray many of the elements I enjoy in a story, like a daring confidence game, many political maneuverings and an interesting social background. The book contains all of that and much more, delivering a story that went well beyond my initial expectations.
The city of Nadezra, formerly the center of the Vraszenian culture, has been for several generations under Liganti domination, the original inhabitants looked on by the conquerors as second-class citizens: in the past, the stipulation of the Accords created a sort of truce between the two factions, but social and political unrest are always ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Ren, a former Vraszenian street urchin now graduated to successful con artist, has concocted a daring plan to insinuate herself in the powerful Traementis family posing as Renata Viraudax, the daughter of a relative who left Nadezra long ago: once accepted by these Liganti nobles she hopes to be able to enjoy all the comforts of wealth for herself and her adopted sister Tess, now posing as Renata’s maid.
Unfortunately, the Traementis are not as influential or wealthy as they used to be, and Ren finds herself enmeshed in ever-convoluted political schemes geared toward helping the Traementis regain their former status so that she can help herself in turn. This plot-within-plot game, however, turns out to be more than Ren could possibly handle, because it dovetails with someone’s malicious strategy to foment a Vraszenian insurrection whose short- and far-reaching consequences are worryingly unclear….
While I am reluctant to reveal more about the plot to avoid spoiling your pleasure in uncovering it as the story develops, I can enjoy much more freedom in the description of the fascinating background in which the novel is set, and of the wide range of characters peopling it: these two elements blend in a captivating whole, and if the pacing feels slightly on the slow side at the start of the book, I can assure you that once the avalanche starts its inexorable downward shift, it gains speed at a breakneck, breath-stealing pace until the conclusion.
Nadezra is a fascinating place: a city built on a series of islands connected by bridges and waterways, its Venice-like quality enhanced by the description of dark alleys and wide plazas, of canals hosting floating markets or covered by impenetrable fogs that conceal both beauty and misdeeds. It’s also a place of glaring contradictions where the mansions of the affluent give way to the poorest hovels or to the crumbling buildings from which crime lords direct their armies of young thugs. And where magic permeates many of the aspects of everyday life.
The two coexisting cultures engage in different kinds of magic: the Liganti employ numinatria, which requires channeling power through a form of numerology focused by special geometrical shapes, while the Vraszenian prefer a form of Tarot based on a deck of cards that show the pattern shaping any given individual’s life. Moreover, objects can be imbued, i.e. gifted with special properties that make them more effective in their everyday use. In this world magic is so pervasive as to be almost mundane at times, but it also plays a pivotal role in the story arc, and with literally mind-bending effects and consequences.
In such a fascinating background, the characters are equally intriguing, starting with Arenza or Ren, both as herself and in the assumed persona of Renata Viraudax: she is a consummate con artist with a harsh past, playing a dangerous scheme to ensure a comfortable future for herself and her adopted sister Tess. Ren is the perfect representative of Nadezran society, one where playing a part, saying a thing while thinking another, is the rule, and she manages this feat with consummate ability. It took me a little while to warm up to Ren (even though I enjoyed her character from page one) because of the callous way in which she acts, but as the story progressed I was able to see her frailties and insecurities, to learn the horrors of her past and to understand where she comes from, emotionally.
The perfect (and quite enjoyable) foil for Ren is represented by Derossi Vargo, a powerful mobster whose ambitions of cleaning up his act and joining respectable society make him an interesting, multi-layered character whose very unpredictability is his most fascinating quality. To call him ambiguous would be a massive understatement, and he maintains this ambiguity to the very end, where an important revelation enhanced my expectations for the next book in the series, particularly in respect of my deep curiosity about the identity and role of a certain Alsius – if you read the book, you know what I mean…
On the opposite side of the personality spectrum is Grey Serrado, a Vraszenian who joined the the city’s law enforcement ranks and is forced to walk a fine line between the pull of his origins and the need to bring order and justice to a city where both concepts are too often mistreated if not ignored: the tight rope of conflicting loyalties he’s forced to walk soon managed to earn my sympathy, and I hope he will be given more narrative space in the next installments, because I feel there is still an untapped potential there, one that the final section of the novel seems to point at.
And then there is the Rook, a mysterious, hooded and masked figure whose acts in defense of the poor and the weak have become legendary – and have been for some two hundred years, hinting at a series of people taking up that mantle over time.
These are the major players, but there are other figures I was able to appreciate, like Donaia Traementis, the iron lady at the head of the failing house, whose strength of character, even in the face of many adversities, is a delight to behold; or young Tess, Ren’s sidekick, accomplice and moral support, whose skills with needle and fabric offer many delightful descriptions of the gorgeous clothes that are such a great part of the story’s background. But the list does not end here, of course…
I had a great deal of fun with The Mask of Mirrors, its skillful blend of adventure, mystery and drawing-room verbal battles creating a rich, multi-layered story I enjoyed losing myself in: the seamless transitions from day-to-day life to vicious political battles, from high-end social gatherings to drug-induced, reality-bending nightmares, proved to be so compelling that it was hard to put the book down, and I hope that authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms – working here under the pen name of M.A. Carrick – will not make us wait too long for the next installment in this very promising series.