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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Mask Of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)

Official Author Website
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is the joint pen name of Marie Brennan (author of the Memoirs of Lady Trent) and Alyc Helms (author of the Adventures of Mr. Mystic). The two met in 2000 on an archaeological dig in Wales and Ireland — including a stint in the town of Carrickmacross — and have built their friendship through two decades of anthropology, writing, and gaming. They live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: This is your past, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither.
Arenza Lenskaya is a liar and a thief, a pattern reader and a daughter of no clan. Raised in the slums of Nadežra, she fled that world to save her sister.

This is your present, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither.
Renata Viraudax is a con artist recently arrived in Nadežra. She has one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune.

This is your future, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither.
But when corrupt nightmares begin to weave their way through the City of Dreams, Ren realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her—and if she cannot sort the truth from the lies, it’ll mean the destruction of her city.

FORMAT/INFO: The Mask of Mirrors was published on January 19th, 2021 by Orbit Books. It is 630 pages split over 24 chapters. It is told in third person from multiple POVS, including Ren, Grey, Donaia, Vargo and Tess. It is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats.

House Traementis has had an unexpected surprise: Renata Viraudax, daughter of an estranged family member who hasn’t been seen in decades, has arrived in Nadezra. Renata claims to hope to arrange a reconciliation between her mother and Donaia, the Traementis matriarch. But Renata’s real reason for returning to Nadezra is less wholesome: she’s a con artist posing as a non-existent daughter, hoping to land herself in the registry of a wealthy noble family. Renata knows the con will be a long one, but she’ll use every trick in her book to win the hearts of not just House Traementis, but the rest of the nobility as well. But Renata’s plans – and her life – are put into jeopardy when she runs afoul of a magical plot that will shake the city of Nadezra to its core.

Every once in a while, you come across a book that couldn’t have been more tailor-made for you if it tried. The Mask of Mirrors is that book for me. I was utterly hooked by the premise, and found myself going out of my way to find time to read it, in a time when I’ve been more inclined to load a video game than open a book. The Mask of Mirrors has great characters, a plot that twists and turns and surprises, and a magic system that relies as much on intuition as it does on precise mathematics.

Let’s start with the characters. There are a whole host of people that Ren interacts with. Her accomplice Tess, who poses as her maid and is the accomplished dressmaker that allows Ren to pass as nobility; Donaia, the protective matriarch of House Traementis who is single-handedly keeping her family afloat; Leato, son in the house she’s coning; Grey Serrado, a captain in the town guard; Vargo, a crime lord of dubious morality who has enough wealth to be tolerated by high society; and of course, the Rook, a mysterious masked vigilante who seems to operate in a Dread Pirate Roberts situation, given that he’s been active for a few centuries. Honestly, I ship Ren with all four of the aforementioned gentlemen, as they bring such different cards to the table. And while I may be drooling over the heterosexual pairings, this book is queer inclusive, with same sex couples treated no differently than any other.

Then there’s Ren herself. Ren is fairly calculating, using her ability to read people to manipulate her way into getting what she needs. Except the family she’s forced to target (by virtue of her having worked as a maid in the estranged family member’s house) is one that is rather down on its luck at the moment. They’re still well-off compared to actually poor families, but they are far from the great house they once were. So for Ren to achieve the wealth she desires, she has to become even more embroiled in their affairs. And of course, the longer you interact with people…well, you can guess how things start to go. But Ren’s attempts to rectify the family’s political and financial standings cause a domino effect that results in Ren becoming thoroughly entangled in the politics of a city that’s a powder keg of tensions waiting to explode.

The tensions between the colonized Vraszenians and the colonizing Liganti is a large focal point of the book, and I do wish that some of that world-building had been fleshed out slightly more in the text instead of in the glossary at the back of the book. While I was aware of who had conquered whom fairly early on, Ren spends most of her time mingling with Liganti nobility, which resulted in much less exploration of the Vraszenian culture than I would have preferred. I was constantly surprised with off-handed references to clans and braids and family shawls that felt like important details I should be aware of. And yet, the fact that I wanted more details about these cultures might be a testament to how much I was invested in the world-building that DID exist.

The magic of The Mask of Mirrors is for the most part a “soft” system that simply works. Numinatria is based on sacred geometry and the gods and is very precise, though most of the specifics are left to the reader’s imagination. Pattern-reading, however, draws from tarot and is a much more intuitive magic, something I personally loved. While some in Nadezra are charlatans, Ren has a gift with pattern decks, and can use her readings to get a sense of the schemes at play in the city. I also enjoyed that the names of the cards (like “The Mask of Mirrors” and “Storm Against Stone”) were chapter headings; the more you get to know about the cards and what they signify, the more you can guess at what lies ahead in the chapter.

As for the plot, this is not a book that moves at break neck speed; at the same time, I was never bored. I was endlessly fascinated watching Ren pulling levers in society to make things happen, watching Vargo investigate troubling activity in the seedier parts of town, trying to guess (largely incorrectly for most of the book) the true identity of the Rook. But at both the mid-point and the finale, the authors pull the breaks off the train and it is madcap insanity for several chapters. Honestly, the number of things that go wrong all at the same time in the finale was somewhat mind-boggling, and was one of those times when I ended up reading the final 100 pages in one sitting. And even better was the set-up for tensions in the next book. Lines are drawn in the final pages and I can see the tragic clash ahead and I am HERE. FOR. IT.

CONCLUSION: I’ve spent almost a thousand words to get across one very simple thought: go read this book. If any of the above appeals to you, if you like con artists, tarot, Venetian-flavored cities, crime lords who are as at home at a gala as they are in a back alley, vigilantes who flirt while they ransack on office, you need to read this book. The Mask of Mirrors has wormed its way into my heart and I am counting the days until the sequel releases.

NOTE: The review was first posted on Realms Of My Mind.


kara-karina@Nocturnal Book Reviews said...

Fabulous review! I am absolutely sold.


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