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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock (reviewed by Łukasz Przywoski)



Official Author Website
Order An Alchemy of Masques & Mirrors over HERE.



AUTHOR INFORMATION: Curtis Craddock was born in the wrong century and quite possibly on the wrong planet. He should have been born in a world where gallant heroes regularly vanquish dire and despicable foes, where friendship, romance, wit, and courage are the foundations of culture and civilization, and where adventure beckons from every shadow.

Instead, he was born on Earth and lives in a world bounded by bureaucracy, hemmed in by cynicism, and governed by the dull necessity of earning a wage. An exile in this world, he is a biographer of friends he's never met, a chronicler of events that never happened, and a cartographer of places that never were.

Given that the mundane world supplies a dearth of oddly progressive kingdoms to be saved, he spends his time saving cats, dogs, and the occasional bird of prey. By day, he teaches Computer Information Systems classes to offenders at a correctional facility. By night, he puts on his writer's cap, the broad-brimmed one with a feather, and, into the prison walls of reality, etches defiant words of legend.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Born with a physical disability, no magical talent, and a precocious intellect, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs has lived her life being underestimated by her family and her kingdom. The only person who appreciates her true self is Jean-Claude, the fatherly musketeer who had guarded her since birth.

All shall change, however, when an unlikely marriage proposal is offered, to the second son of a dying king in an empire collapsing into civil war.

But the last two women betrothed to this prince were murdered, and a sorcerer-assassin is bent on making Isabelle the third. Isabelle and Jean-Claude plunge into a great maze of prophecy, intrigue, and betrayal, where everyone wears masks of glamour and lies. Step by dangerous step, Isabelle must unravel the lies of her enemies and discovers a truth more perilous than any deception.

CLASSIFICATION: Steampunk / Gaslamp Fantasy.

FORMAT: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was published by Tor in January 2019 as the first book in  The Risen Kingdom series. It'a available in an e-book, paperback and hardcover format. 

The book counts 416 pages and is divided into 23 numbered chapters. The cover art was done by Thom Tenery

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Such a great book.  Not only does it feel fresh, intelligent and imaginative, it’s also Craddock’s debut work which is impressive.

Grand Leon rules L’Empire Céleste inhabited by Clayborn (regular folks) and Saintborns (direct descendants of saints). Saintborns consider themselves better than a majority of population because of their unique magical talents. Some can kill with their shadows, or hollow people out and take away their volition. Others travel through mirrors or remember all their incarnations.  

Isabelle des Zephyrs is a disabled Princess with a genius IQ and the daughter of the Comte des Zephyrs – a cruel aristocrat who loves abusing others physically and emotionally. Sometimes for fun. Sometimes for power or to make a point. He treats Isabelle as a total failure. Not only is she a girl, but she also has a malformed hand and no inherited magic. 

He fails to appreciate Isabelle‘s brilliant mind. Not surprising as the story develops in a strongly patriarchal society that doesn’t allow women to do anything worth doing (like studying mathematics or languages). Women can paint and accompany their husbands to soiréesand that’s basically it. Isabelle’s mind needs stimulation, so she pursues a secret career in science and mathematics under a male pseudonym. Only one person–her protector and King’s Own Musketeer Jean-Claude knows the secret. Fortunately, Jean-Claude is trustworthy, and he loves her dearly. More like a father than a servant.

Because of her disability and lack of preternatural gifts Isabelle doesn’t expect to get married, and she’s prepared to live her double life till the end. But then, one day, she learns that her father has betrothed to a prince of Aragoth, being likely next in line to the throne of that foreign nation. It turns out that one of religious officials –artifex Kantelvar (half human, half clockwork) – pushes hard for her marriage. As if there was more to it than it appears…

Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors impressed me on many levels.

The plot is full of twists and intelligent court intrigue. It mixes fantasy subgenres in a compelling tale that contains elements of science fiction, fantasy, historical fantasy, steampunk, action, and adventure. The stakes are high. Nothing is what it seems. Discovering layers of court intrigue was a delight although sometimes I wished I had taken notes to keep track of all the revelations and surprises. Craddock’s created a fully realised and complex world with floating kingdoms, airships, magic and slightly decadent society, and there’s a lot to process here. Pay attention, or else you’ll get lost fast.

Characters feel human and lively. It’s difficult not to care for them. Both Isabelle and Jean-Claude have a lot to offer to a reader who looks for someone to root for. Isabelle is brilliant, caring, good at heart but also, especially when it’s needed, her mind is cold and analytical. We witness her deduction skills and observe her solving complicated mysteries instead of being told how sharp Isabelle is.  She’s not a beauty. Craddock describes her this way:
Half a girl wide and a girl and a half tall, with a long face, Isabelle was well on her way to being horsey.
Imagine a cross between Ada Lovelace and Sherlock Holmes and you’ll get the feel of who Isabelle is. I liked her as a heroine because of her brilliance, goodness and quick wit. When time presses, she acts fast. Even though the plot revolves around her marriage, there’s not much of a romance in the book. And for me, it’s a plus.

Jean-Claude is past his prime and he doesn’t fancy the aging process. Born of the trickster archetype, he’d much rather talk his way out of a situation than fight his way out. He’s an expert in selling a man his own boots. In conversation with his King, he reveals what’s his biggest weapon. It was unexpected but hilarious.

Magic system—shadows that can kill, Glasswalkers able to walk through mirrors—impressed me with creativity and restraint in making it too detailed. I like the idea that magical gifts come from old bloodlines connected to Saints and that all have their limitations. Because Craddock portrayed those gifts with skill and imagination, I can still recall my favourite scenes. 

Another thing I really appreciated was a nice balance between wry humor, sinister plot and more serious, sometimes dark and violent moments. People die and suffer, but the use of grotesque elements and distanced, sometimes humorous narration allows readers to get some relief. Here’s a sample describing a beer Jean-Claude gets in a bar:
She slapped down a mug of something that was, he suspected, technically alcohol, but only because it had a good lawyer.” 
Language is neat. I have seen no typos, except maybe Jean-Claude name that’s written as Jean-Claude and sometimes as Jean Claude. Not meaningful, but for the sake of consistency editor should stick to one I guess (unless there was a reason for this that I haven’t caught). The author mixes French words with English but switching between languages has a reason rooted in the story. I enjoyed it. Craddock enjoys thesaurus and fancy words, but I think such choices allowed to make the world consistent and with aristocratic feel.

CONCLUSION: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was one of few highlights of 2017 for me and I encourage readers tired of cliches and banality to try it. You won’t regret it.

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