I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
It’s been less than a year since I read and enjoyed the first book in this series, The Mask of Mirrors, so I was quite eager to see how the story of Ren’s “long con” continued, given the unexpected developments and the intrigue-laden background that made that novel such an enticing read. Well, I was quite enthusiastic about the way in which The Liar’s Knot moved the story forward, keeping the pace lively while at the same changing the stakes in the game.
Former street rat Ren succeeded in her goal of being accepted by House Traementis after posing as a long-lost relative, but she’s come to unexpectedly care for her adoptive family and the misfortunes that are slowly bringing it down, to the point that she’s risking much to unravel the longtime plots woven against them, and in so doing she discovers that the problem is far more widespread and possesses deeper roots encompassing the whole city of Nadezra. Juggling her three personalities – noblewoman Renata Viraudaux, fortune-teller Arenza Lenskaya and the mysterious Black Rose – becomes even more difficult as perilous currents threaten to upset the city’s fragile balance and her carefully constructed personalities are in danger of being unmasked.
Captain Grey Serrado is experiencing even more conflict than before: while it’s never been easy to be a Vraszenian officer of the Vigil in a Liganti-ruled city, other problems are surfacing that make his difficult path even harder, and his quest to avenge his brother’s death even more complicated. Moreover, his growing feelings for Renata/Arenza are adding another layer to an already burdensome mix…
Last but not least, crime lord Derossi Vargo, even after being accepted in Nadezra’s high society, struggles with his past and the burning thirst for power that has fueled all his endeavors, and that struggle starts to show some chinks in his apparently impenetrable armor.
Where the first book in the series was more focused on Ren’s daring gamble of passing for a noblewoman to finally gain some financial security for herself and her adopted sister Tess, here the story rests more on a deeper world-building and on the exploration of Nadezran society, a world where intrigue, appearances and ruthless political maneuvering make one’s life quite complicated – not to say dangerous. At the end of The Mask of Mirrors the dramatic events in which Ren played a considerable part had left Nadezra shaken and its people struggling to recover a semblance of normalcy. In The Liar’s Knot we start to perceive that the corruption – both political and magic-related – runs far deeper and threatens to destroy the uneasy balance between the various factions, and that many of those in charge have little or no care for the consequences, as long as they can be assured more power.
The universe created by the authors (M.A. Carrick is the pen name uniting Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms) is a very complex, many-layered one and here we see much more of the magic system underlying it – both its wonders and its dangers – while the sense of impending doom, of time dangerously running out, becomes more and more tangible with each new chapter. And against that doom our characters fight with all their resources, to the point of forging unexpected alliances that would have looked impossible in the first book of the saga. Ren, Serrado, Vargo and even the Rook (the masked avenger who has been righting the city’s wrongs for two centuries) come to team up against the evil threatening Nadezra, and even when that alliance feels uneasy they manage to work together well: given that all of the characters here are holding secrets (be they identity- or goal-related) the teamwork is at times fraught with suspicion, adding more fuel to an already tense situation, and proving quite entertaining for the readers who enjoy the privilege of holding all the information while the characters possess only a limited amount of it.
This fragmented knowledge also gives way to many misunderstandings that put at risk the fragile ties that some characters are building – one such case creates a quite dramatic scene between two of them (and no, I’m not offering any spoilers here…) – but the authors very wisely choose not to drag this situation beyond the breaking point: I very much enjoyed their choice of having the characters unburden themselves of some of their secrets, with the double effect of clearing the air and strengthening their alliance on one side, and of creating some poignant moments where they could be their true selves, even if only for a short while. I found this quite emotionally satisfying.
Character-wise, Ren here is stretched to the limits of her endurance: the drawn-out need to play many roles is starting to weigh on her, compounded by the distance she’s forced to keep with Tess – sister and confidante – because she cannot be seen to be too close to her “maid”. This forces her to rely on others – Grey and Vargo – for support and despite her understandable reluctance one can see how the choice is helping her to bring the better parts of her personality to the fore, particularly where her intrinsic kindness is concerned.
Grey Serrado was something of a mystery to me in the first book, and I perceived there were untapped depths in his character: here he’s given more space to grow and to reveal more of himself to the reader, so that he grew on me more than it happened before, even though I have to admit that he pales in comparison with Vargo, who appeared from the beginning as the more intriguing among the many figures of this story. We see much more of him in The Liar’s Knot, and what we see fills out his personality in a wonderful way, particularly when we come to understand that under the thick skin of the ruthless crime lord there is a history of pain and vulnerabilities seeking redress from a society that always snubbed him.
And it would be impossible to talk of Vargo without also mentioning Alsius, the venomous spider riding on the man’s coat and telepathically linked to him: all of my questions from book 1 received an answer here – and some of those answers are quite momentous! – and the authors also gave him and independent voice that proved to be delightfully funny and quite enjoyable.
The Liar’s Knot is an intense, totally engrossing read that moves forward the series through quite dramatic developments and that keeps the reader enthralled with its many twists and revelations, very effectively giving the lie to the notion that a series’ middle book tends to be weaker: with the foundations laid by the saga so far, we can only expect an explosive conclusion, and I am more than looking forward to it.