The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I consider myself very lucky to have received an ARC of this book from NetGalley by way of the World Fantasy Convention virtual book bag. Not only did I get to read this fabulous book that was completely off my radar, but now I have a NetGalley account to get more books in advance.
This book caught my attention even before I learned that M.A. Carrick is a pen name with Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms on the other side. I am not familiar with Helms, but have enjoyed some of Brennan’s work and was happy to read more. And there’s a lot to love about this book!
I’m a sucker for fantasy Venice, and this one delivered both the familiar and the unfamiliar. The language is distinct (not just fantasy-bastardized Italian); while the city is a canal city, it’s not just Venice was a mask and a hat on; and the story explores colonialism and class conflict, not merchants versus monarch neighbors.
Once I learned that Marie Brennan was half of this writing duo, I knew I was in for some rich world building, both micro (the clothing details!) and macro (the geopolitical history!). It took me a while to get the hang of it (mostly the geopolitical history), because my hand was not held very much, but I eventually sorted out the different people groups, where they came from, what they called themselves, what they called each other, and why the city is contentiously shared. I appreciate that the focus of the story was continually on the characters, social interactions, and the intrigues of the plot, and not on massive exposition dumps that might have cleared up the history but at the expense of boring me and making me put the book down.
The political intrigue is built around actual local politics, not a monarch’s court, a war, high-society family feuding, or a disruptive incident like an election or new head of a powerful family. All of those can produce wonderful and thrilling stories, but I have been looking for something different, and I found it here. Rather then starting with a disruption and following characters who try to leverage it to attain their goals, this plot is the unfolding of the disruption amidst everyone’s schemes and agendas. Also, we follow characters representing several sectors of society’s lowest tiers, rather than the highest. None of our main characters just happens to know someone in the nobility or the slums in order to get that tier on the page; they all work hard for their interactions.
Beware if you’re easily lost or put off by large casts of characters! I really like this in a story, even when I lose track of people and forget who they are. It was a little tough because different characters referred to each other by different forms of their names, and there were a few secondary characters that became muddled for me, especially because I had to take a month-long break in the middle of reading this book. However, everyone was distinct enough that I recalled who they were and how they fit into the story as the scenes progressed, so I was never lost for long.
Tl;dr: this book made me happy. It’s stuffed full of my big-fat-fantasy-novel joys. It didn’t drag like (I quite honestly have come to expect from) a 600+ page book, it wasn’t two or three books smashed into one, or a book that didn’t know when to stop and so ended on a cliffhanger/left some huge part of the plot unresolved to shortcut into the next book. The pacing was tight. The story wrapped up, justice was served, the characters advanced in their goals. In doing so the positions and relationships between the main characters shift so that new tensions emerge that will drive the interpersonal aspects of whatever the next plot is, and I am really looking forward to it.
(I can’t believe I reviewed this whole book on Goodreads and NetGalley and forgot to talk about the magic systems! There’s both spiritually-based intuitive tarot reading and a mathematical-based system that reminds me of the alchemy from Fullmetal Alchemist. They’re both 100% rad and included in my “big-fat-fantasy-novel joys”.)
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