The Mask of Mirrors (Rook & Rose, #1) by M.A. Carrick

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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Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey

Magic for LiarsMagic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. I adore Sarah Gailey, and loved American Hippo. While I enjoyed reading Magic for Liars, it didn’t surprise me very much. I think the magic-school setting overtook the L.A. noir elements, so it didn’t feel like the true genre mash-up I was looking for. I will say, the ending is depressing af, and that nailed the noir mood.

I recommend Magic for Liars to those who like character-driven detective stories, magic school settings, sibling relationships, and adult-coming-of-age stories.

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“A Dead Djinn in Cairo” – P. Djèlí Clark

A Dead Djinn in CairoA Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I re-read “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” both to prepare for reading Clark’s new novella set in the same world, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and because I heard Clark speak about “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” during a panel appearance at Readercon in 2018, and I realized how much I had missed, and how little credit my previous review gave the depth of the story.

After I first read this, I was caught up in the wonderfully quick pace, the witty banter of the characters, the satisfaction of the climactic fight scene, and I called this story a confection. I often compare writing to desserts, because I love both, but that review does “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” a disservice.

This novelette has more markers and symbols of colonization and the anxiety of modernity than a James Joyce story. Lush with details that are so excellently woven into the fabric of the narrative, I didn’t notice them until Clark said the story is about colonization, and I read it again. Egypt has a very long history as colonizer and colonized, which Clark pays careful attention to throughout. In this alternate history, not only is technology developed at an earlier time to give it steampunk elements, the Egyptians stave off British colonialism and impose their own colonization on neighboring Sudan. And in turn, they are all colonized by creatures of legend emerging again into the world—djinn, angels, ghuls, gods, and monsters. None of the political colonizing is described in the text—I learned of the fight between Egypt and Britain to colonize Sudan when I started looking up the history of colonialism in Egypt—and yet it is, through every minutiae of cosmopolitan Cairo in the early 20th century, and the characters we meet as they move through their re-imagined cityscape investigating the mysterious death of the titular djinn.

I recently read Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums, which does for New Orleans what he does here for Cairo—sketch out a whole different history in a few words, a few pages; food, clothes, and the people consuming them; city streets and the people inhabiting the corners. I immediately slide into his reimagined places as though they have always been this way. I won’t overlook the complexity again.

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The Witches of New York – Ami McKay

The Witches of New YorkThe Witches of New York by Ami McKay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently took a 3-day business trip that afforded me the rare opportunity to read for uninterrupted hours while on airplanes, and I tore through this book. Ami McKay’s style is light and leading, and she builds solid and interesting characters. The focus on friendships, while somewhat overtaken by romance, is a lovely closing note in the final scenes. The book was an enjoyable light read, but left me wanting something with a little more teeth.

Big and small tensions drive the story forward. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice have private concerns and arcs that connect to the two big plot arcs of the story: the threat from the reverend and the tenuous lease of the tea shop. Their private and public struggles (fraught romantic relationships, family, ghosts) epitomize commonly-explored themes and issues in stories about women: the patriarchy, the oppression of female power and autonomy, friendship, knowledge, and empowerment. However, some of the many side plots get the short shrift as we move inexorably toward the completion of the main plot, leaving a sense of dissatisfaction and rushed storytelling, even as the pages of worldbuilding lend a lavishness to the tale.

I think McKay missed a lot of opportunities to craft a different kind of villain and show us a different side of Victoria-era New York City. Our main villain is a reverend whose interest in the Salem Witch Trials becomes an obsession that unlocks the serial killer within. Maybe I’m just over serial killer stories, but I thought maybe the forces aligning against our witchy protagonists could be of a political or social nature rather than a religious one, and could have been just as threatening without a religious psychopath and a murder basement. The story takes place at the height of both the Spiritualism movement and the Gilded Age, but both seem a muted backdrop or an emerging force rather than the very prevalent agents of change and social upheaval that they were. Alex Brown’s review of the book on rightly points out McKay’s missed opportunities for exploring a less white and privileged side of New York City at this moment in time. The intersection (and schism) of white and African-American suffrage efforts, the varied Victorian attitudes toward lesbian relationships, and the occult practices and traditions of the many different ethnic and immigrant communities living side by side in New York City are all absent.

Is the book enjoyable and full of strong characters and interesting details of a bygone era? Absolutely, yes. Could McKay have dug deeper and tread lesser-explored ground to lend her story subtler teeth instead of blunt edges? Also, yes. Pick this one up if you want a good book, but not if you want a great one.

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Companions on the Road and The Winter Players: Two Novellas – Tanith Lee

Companions on the Road and The Winter Players: Two NovellasCompanions on the Road and The Winter Players: Two Novellas by Tanith Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first discovered these collected novellas on a list whose theme I have since forgotten (adventure fantasy? standalone reads?) and added the volume to my to-read list when I read the subtitle “wondrous tales of adventure and quest” and saw that it is authored by the late great Tanith Lee. Over the holidays, I found a copy in an unexpected used book store in my hometown and snapped it up immediately.

I’m reviewing the novellas out of order, because The Winter Players, “a game of cold sorceries and burning shadows,” delivered exactly what it promised on the cover—an adventure quest of sorcerous confrontations . . . until it surprised me at the end with one of my favorite story tropes: time travel. Not only that, Lee interrogated the trope quite thoroughly while using it; her characters dissect the impact of the strange circle they’ve created, and the consequences of perpetuating or breaking it, before making their decision to try for a happy ending. And what great characters they are! Oaive and Grey are intelligent and resourceful, with deep feelings and constraints on their liberty that they find creative ways around. Occasionally, the text breezes past moments of Oaive making connections of thought and logic that feel a little too expositional, but Lee’s smooth prose carries me past these bumps. This novella could be longer, perhaps even full novel length, but it also wears its brevity well.

Companions on the Road surprised me from the outset with its ominous mood and touch of horror. The mood is employed with a deft touch – no overdone horror cues or descriptions, just an incredible sense of dread. Lee plays with this beautifully, keeping it in a place of tension throughout the story and creating an ebb and flow with moments of strangeness and unease between the travelers and other characters they meet along the road. The danger of the three pursuing figures is made immediately clear, but Havor prioritizes other feelings and problems as he encounters them, only giving the full weight of his anxiety to the three spectral figures as his companions fall away one by one. (This was the second surprise of this story: the description prepared me for an adventure story with a party of travelers I expected to follow to the end, but instead I followed only Havor.) Even as Havor surrenders to his inevitable doom, he fights against it, allowing the dread to grow and saturate the story like the best horror fiction.

The character work in Companions is superb – while Feluce and Kachil are strong foils who make Havor seem like a really great guy, Havor still possesses flaws and complications. Lukon is on the page so briefly but is so wonderfully rendered and used to highlight positive and negative aspects of the other characters. Silsi is a wonderful mirror, reflecting Havor’s stubbornness and strength and balancing Havor’s sense of doom with hope and quick wits.

Companions on the Road is compact storytelling at its best. The title is perfect, encompassing the structural parallels of the three travelers and the three pursuers, as well as playing on the idea of death personified as a companion. This novella reminded me of the writings of Lord Dunsany and leaves me excited to read even more by Tanith Lee.

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