Title: The Mask of Mirrors
Author: M.A. Carrick
Publication date: January 19, 2021
One Sentence Summary: As a child, the city betrayed Ren in many ways, and now she’s back to exact revenge: by conning her way into the nobility, only to find out there’s a deeper game afoot and she somehow plays a role.
I’ll be honest and say the cover was a big reason why I wanted to read this book. The masks had me dreaming of Carnevale in Italy, but, after reading the book, I’m pretty sure I read somewhere one time that there were Slavic influences woven through the world, and I kept getting an Eastern European feel to it with tarot cards thrown in for good measure. It was kind of a dizzying world and something of a slog to get into, what with being thrown into a completely foreign world and having to wade through almost incomprehensible titles, families, places, and terms. It was confusing and I just gave up on trying to keep everything straight, hoping it would become clearer the longer I read on, which it did as the story picked up and took quite a few terms to become one of my favorite reads.
Where Games Come to be Played
Ren was orphaned as a young child when her mother was killed and robbed. She ended up being raised alongside Tess and Sledge by their knot leader Ondrakja, but the city once again betrays her as Ondrakja kills Sledge as punishment to Ren. So Ren poisons Ondrakja, committing an unforgivable betrayal of her knot, and runs from Nadezra with Tess.
Years later, Ren and Tess are back. Aiming to take revenge on a city that has stolen everything from her by conning her way into the noble Traementis family, Ren poses as Renata Viraudax, the daughter of a woman struck from the Traementis register, with Tess as her maid. She makes waves as she ensures everyone in the city knows her name so the remaining Traementis family can’t ignore her. She also draws the attention of a masked vigilante known as the Rook and reformed criminal named Vargo who has eyes on joining the nobility himself.
Ren is drawn into a web, a dizzying game being played around her without her being aware of it while she plays her own, that has her reaching into her Vraszenian roots and playing both sides of the city, the Nadezran half and the Vraszenian half as the two clash in a class war around her.
The Mask of Mirrors is, as I’ve mentioned, dizzying. The reader is tossed whole body into a completely foreign world where nobles aren’t even lords and ladies, but altans and altas. There’s a handy cast of characters and a glossary that I found myself referencing throughout the book, but I found it easier to figure out by simply shrugging it off and hoping it would make sense and the pieces would fall into place as I read along. But it was often confusing and slow going as story and world building wound so tightly around each other. It was difficult trying to understand one piece without the other. So, the beginning was kind of a dizzy mess and will likely merit some re-reading. But I did like getting to know Ren as both Ren and Renata and the history that drove her to doing what she was doing. It was fascinating to read about how she worked to con the nobility of Nadezra.
The middle both disappointed and thrilled me. At its start, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at a too common device used in fantasy. It felt like an easy way out to transition from the story of Ren conning her way into the Traementis family to the story of a disgruntled woman from Ren’s past and the story of a larger con game afoot throughout the city. Really, it’s quite a lot packed into this book, and I’m a little surprised it, more or less, flowed. But that middle part, as much as it had me rolling my eyes and feeling a little letdown, really did come through and add a little more to the story. Though it also bloated the story to near bursting.
The second half of the book was kind of a roller coaster. I found it impossible to put down. There was so much going on, so many events, so many different disparate parts coming together into a whole. I loved that control slipped from Ren and an entirely more sinister plot brewed to throw the city into chaos, chaos that maybe only Ren could help temper. It was an incredible ride and, at the end, I was mad that it ended and I would have to wait for the next book to be published because, by then, I’d gotten a good grasp on the world and was so pulled into the games being played that I wanted to read more. I don’t think I’ve ever been so indignantly angry at a book before.
Focused on a Core Group
Like most fantasies, The Mask of Mirrors comes with a large cast of characters, but not so large as the dramatis personae list would have you believing. There are quite a few minor characters that do carry some importance, but the reader doesn’t really get to meet or interact much with them. Instead, the story is focused on a handful or so people, making it much easier to keep track of them and where in the world and the story they belonged.
There’s Ren and Tess who are sisters and have spent years together. Ren is the con artist while Tess plays her role as a lady’s maid and is quite a wizard with a needle. They’re a lovely pair that balance each other and I adore the close, sisterly bond they share. Tess is more of a shrinking violet, always unsure of herself when not playing Ren’s maid. Ren was, essentially, three faced as she portrayed herself, Renata the noblewoman, and Arenza the Vraszenian pattern reader. It was a lot of fun reading how she managed to pull them all off and keep them all separate. I thought Ren was much more boring than Renata, though, and Arenza didn’t do much but dutifully play her role. I liked that she was able to pull off all three, but I find I don’t really know Ren herself.
Then there’s Vargo and the Traementis family and the Rook. Each portrays a different part of Nadezran society. Vargo is the reformed crime lord trying to edge his way into the nobility, and he will play anyone and every game to do so. But there’s something suave about him, something that’s both oily and alluring. The Traementis family is rapidly diminishing, both in size and wealth. With the arrival of Renata, they number four. The matriarch is, of course, suspicious, but her children, Leato and Giuna welcome her as a long-lost cousin. There’s both distrust and desperation in the once prominent noble family. The Rook is a symbol for the Vraszens. A shadowy, unknown figure that has endured for 200 hundred years, the Rook exacts revenge for the lower classes, but seems to have a separate vendetta of it’s own.
Put together, the characters alone, with how diverse they are, hints at a huge story. Each is a different cog in a plot the reader only starts to learn of in the latter half of the book. There’s much at stake for each of them, but bonds also grow that will likely be tested over and over before the story is concluded.
Focused on a City, but Complex
The Mask of Mirrors presents a fascinating, yet confusing world. As the reader is simply dropped into it and the authors don’t take a moment to introduce anything, it feels like a crazy mass of made up words that only slowly spin into a cohesive world. Instead, all the explaining is left to the glossary, requiring much flipping back and forth.
But I do have to admit that, as ambitious as it is, it somehow works. Once I was as fully oriented as I could be, or could at least keep altas and altans separate. I kept expecting Venice to pop up, especially with the prevalence of masks and all the canals, but Poland kept invading my thoughts. I definitely got more of an Eastern European feel than Italian, which just made things more muddled in my mind.
As I read on, though, I adjusted to the world unfolding before me to the point where I was fully drawn into it. I loved how it depicted a city full of the people native to Nadezra, the Vraszenians, and the descendants of the invaders. It’s a classic class story of the conquerors shoving down the people who were there first. But now things are becoming heated as cogs begin to turn, creating a city of unrest and distrust.
On another level, there’s a more mystical component at play. The magic is in the form of numinatria, designs that, when drawn a certain way, induce different kinds of behavior in the people caught up in it. But there’s also pattern magic, accessible only to Vraszenian pattern readers who take what are, essentially, tarot cards, and tell someone’s fortune and misfortune and that which is neither. The magic is subtle, but strong, and I get the feeling there’s more yet to be unraveled about how, exactly, it all works considering how strong the pattern magic of the Vraszenians are and how predominant the numinatria of the Nadezrens are.
Amazing After a Shaky Start
While The Mask of Mirrors started on shaking footing for me, I’m glad I stuck with it. It was absolutely slow going, but, by going as slowly as I needed to, I was better able to absorb the story and the world to the point where I really didn’t want it to end. As confused as I was at first, I found myself angry that I would have to wait for the next book to be published to find out what was going to happen next. I was not ready to stop reading, especially since the real story of the series was just starting to gear up. I wasn’t a fan of how the story seemed to evolve from one thing to another, but it all made sense and, thinking back, I can see wisps of the overarching story reaching all the way back to the first pages. Overall, an almost too bloated and ambitious story, but fascinating enough for me to eagerly anticipate the next book.
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Thank you to Angela Man and Orbit for electronic and physical ARC copies. All opinions expressed are my own.