The Mask of Mirrors is a rich and thickly-embroidered story of intrigue, conspiracy and magic woven throughout a Venetian city where religion and magic are as much a part of the city as the cobblestones themselves.
Into this society divided by class, privilege and heritage, drops Ren. A girl seeking to mend the unmendable ties of a broken family. But that’s not true at all, and it’s only the surface frosting of subterfuge on a layer-cake so deep at times you feel you may have lost sight of what the truth ever was.
We follow Ren and become familiar with her goals, and the game she plays to achieve them. As soon as those objectives have some sort of clarity, the focus is gradually but relentlessly drawn to the multifaceted objectives of every other group in the city, from the crimelords to the cultural extremists, the noble houses to the smugglers to the city guards (called the Vigil), and most interestingly of all, to the characters who straddle several camps, cultures or families, and seek always to retain their precarious balance.
A Rich and Thoroughly-Crafted World
I’ll refer to the “authors” throughout, because M.A.Carrick is a pen name for the association of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. The fact that this book was co-written is impressive, and there’s an entire interview on how that process worked for the authors on YouTube.
The city, the people, the social structures, the magic, even (and particularly) the deck of cards used to read people’s fortunes, have all been created with enormous attention to detail and an eye for consistency and continuity. You feel the effort that went into it in every page, and in the depth and reliability of the world they built.
The characters themselves have equally complex motivations, which are nuanced and usually not obvious. We are tempted to think we have deciphered parts of the intrigue again and again, only for the story to make a revelation that completely undermines what we thought we’d understood. While this could be very frustrating in the context of a less well written novel, here you can feel the work the authors put into making this more than a ‘gotcha’, because in each case it serves to add a new layer to the intrigue and to give you new insight into what’s going on.
Different cultures are in conflict in the world, and these are described well, in particular where they intersect either because they must work alongside each other, or because someone must, by virtue of birth, or position, exist in both. Prejudice, nationalism, xenophobia and discrimination are strong forces, and in this world there is little to hold them in check. Cultures are cleverly distinguished, through their manner of speech (sentence construction), their dress, the area of the city they live in. Their physical attributes also, but this feels almost simplistic (fair hair versus brown, for example) given the other means used to distinguish between them.
Magic is introduced gently, and gains in importance as the novel progresses. By the last quarter of the story, magic has taken centre stage, but it does so in increments, with a narrative flair that defies the use of the term ‘magic system’ to describe it. In fact, I don’t think the novel uses the word, prefering its own vocabulary, a choice that adds further to the immersion, especially as the words are very well chosen. Much remains unexplained, but that’s OK, because this is the first in a trilogy, and the story isn’t about how the magic works.
Strong, the Intrigue is.
The writing is at its best when the quickstep deceit of high society is at its most intense. Some of the most thrilling parts of the novel have nothing to do with daring swordfights on rooftops, but instead happens in the parlors of the rich and noble, where few people are what they seem, and everyone’s out to gain some sort of advantage, or penetrate a secret, or manipulate for an outcome.
The novel is rich in these situations, particularly in the first half, and the authors have a gift for constructing situations in which the wits of the protagonist are her strongest gift, as she dances from lie to lie with no safety net.
The story took a while to get properly wound up, but it was these conversations that kept me going through the first third of the book, as the writers moved their (many, many) pieces into place on the board.
By the end of the novel, many of these pieces, both friend and foe, have been taken off the board. More interestingly, the allegiance of each piece remaining in the game is still in doubt. Often, a character we thought a friend turns out to be, perhaps not foe, but something more complicated than an ally.
Boldness in Nuance
It’s easy to draw a good but flawed character. It’s easy to draw a powerful antagonist or a heroic protagonist. It’s harder to draw complex characters with real weaknesses to counterbalance their strengths.
Even in real life, we tend to put the people we know in passing in boxes, assuming that this person’s loyalty is weak, that person’s a gossip and that one aggressive. Simple labels that fail to capture anyone’s essence at all. Nobody is any of these things absolutely, and the same is true for many of the characters in this novel.
While we have no doubt as to the evil of some, most are ambiguous. Many are ambitious, even to the point of damaging those around them, but since that’s a necessary survival skill, it’s hard to blame them entirely. Some of the nobles, who we are quickly taught to dislike, turn out to be – who would have thought? – noble. Some of the downtrodden, tread down themselves at the first opportunity. Kindness comes from the least likely quarter, for the least noble of reasons, and terrible things are done with the best of intentions, poisoned by a drop of misinformation.
It’s courageous to write characters like this, given how much thought to must go into the design of their underlying motives. The authors have done this in spades, for enough of their characters that the story feels rich in their company.
A Strong Recommendation
I often find myself saying nice things about a book that didn’t really grip me. I do this because I recognise that I’m a difficult audience and sometimes I don’t like an otherwise excellent book, because I’m particular. So I write something nice, that the book deserves, that unfortunately doesn’t come from the heart. I sometimes feel a little dishonest as I write my reviews.
I have no such problem here. While I had a hard time getting into the pace of the novel at first, I can give my recommendation with no danger to my conscience.
This is an excellent book, and if you want to read something that will immerse you, challenge you and perhaps, frustrate you a little with its complexity, then this is absolutely the book for you. I enjoyed it very much.
You can purchase The Mask of Mirrors on Amazon.