Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Bisexual PoV character, queernorm world, multiple minor F/F and M/M
Published on: 21st January 2021
The Mask of Mirrors is the unmissable start to the Rook & Rose trilogy, a dazzling and darkly magical fantasy adventure by Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, writing together as M. A. Carrick.
Fortune favors the bold. Magic favors the liars.
Ren is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadežra with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house, securing her fortune and her sister's future.
But as she's drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as nightmare magic begins to weave its way through the City of Dreams, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled…with Ren at their heart.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~The make-up is magic
~Don’t let the monsters eat your dreams
~A fabulous pet spider
Reader: I did not love this book.
A lot of that is on me; I knew going into this that M. A. Carrick is the pseudonym of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, and although I adore the premises of all Brennan’s books, something about her style has always put me to sleep. Secondly, I also knew this was a story centered around a con, and I don’t care about cons and heists and all that sort of thing. So really, I probably should have given this one a pass.
But it sounded so perfect, and all the press for it is glowing, and how often do we get 700+ pages-long fantasies anymore? From two authors who are both anthropologists? It was going to be silks and jewels in a queernorm setting, with guaranteed detailed worldbuilding, so… I risked it.
And now I’ve finished it, it all seems so forgettable. I have no strong feelings about it at all. I certainly don’t hate it, but I can’t think of anyone I’d recommend it to, either. I have no urge to gush; I’m not struggling to turn my flaily delight into something legible. I’m equally not torturing my keyboard in hammering out frustration or upset. I’m just…
I want to say that there’s nothing actually wrong with this book; these are not bad writers by any stretch. But turning the final page this morning, I realised that I didn’t care about a single one of the characters. The enormous reveal that takes place on the second-last page, which should have been jaw-dropping… I felt nothing. I’m confused as to how this isn’t a standalone, because Mask of Mirrors wraps up just about every question it asks and every plotline it starts, which makes the dramatic final line – which is literally something like “This is your game? Then let’s play. ” – a wet fizzle when it was clearly meant as a mic-drop, a drawn sword, a let’s play.
To which my only response is: play what? No, don’t answer, I don’t actually care.
And I can’t tell you why. The characters all have their backstories, their unique motivations, people and things they care about. Some are sweet and some are not; some are out for family and some are out for blood; some are criminals-with-hearts-of-gold and some of them are criminals-but-you-love-it; there’s a whole mixed bag here, is what I’m saying, and almost all of them – appropriately, given the book’s title – wear multiple masks, appearing very different from different angles, in different contexts. Sometimes that’s literal, as in the case of the Rook, a mysterious vigilante who defends the poor from the nobility from within an enchanted cowl; sometimes it’s a bit more metaphorical, like Ren, who uses make-up and mannerisms to pass for a noble or a fortune-teller as the situation requires.
But the cast is so varied that it must be nearly impossible, statistically, to not care about any of them. And I don’t. I found a few mildly more interesting than the rest…but not nearly interesting enough that I would have finished reading the book if it hadn’t been an arc (which I do feel obliged to finish, unless one is actually abysmally bad). And given that Mask of Mirrors is over 700 pages long (nearly 800 on my kindle)…I mean, you had twice as much space as most books to make me care. And yet, you failed. That’s not great.
That said, it’s clear from other early reviews that I’m the exception. I don’t think this is an objectively bad book; I think it’s a case of book + reader not meshing well, for whatever reason. But I do have one legitimate critique.
I think there’s an almost mathematical rule that the faster the pace of the story, the ‘blunter’ your prose can be. You don’t need a lot of three-syllable adjectives for an action story (although of course, you’re free to use them if you want). But the flipside of that is that when your story moves slowly, your prose needs to become…dreamier, lovelier, more poetic. A slower story needs beautiful prose to both justify the languid pace, and also to give your reader something to enjoy which is not the story itself (because the story itself is not moving forward very quickly). And I think Mask of Mirrors fails to justify its pacing that way. The prose is not beautiful enough to make me want to linger over every page, to make me appreciate and even enjoy that slower pace. I wouldn’t call it bad, but the best I can describe it as is ‘pleasant’. A meal that didn’t give you food poisoning, but that you won’t have again.
Moving onto the worldbuilding, which I expected to be spectacular… Maybe I went in with my expectations too high, because I wasn’t impressed. The setting didn’t feel different enough from things I’ve seen before to stand out as impressive. A lot of attention has been paid to detail; the various parts of this world fit together perfectly, I won’t deny that. If the worldbuilding rule is that authors must know every detail down to how the plumbing works, well, Brennan and Helms know how the plumbing works. And yet, the setting still feels generically European; not Medieval, but vaguely Regency, maybe, only queerer and with magic, drawing on Venice instead of England or France. Renaming the months of a year doesn’t impress me, nor does creating your own stand-in for tarot. I was looking for a setting that felt truly different, and I didn’t get it.
Ultimately, I just never felt invested, and I won’t be picking up the sequel. But since I seem to be very much the exception, I do still think you should give it a try if the blurb appeals to you.