The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick
Nightmares are creeping through the city of dreams…
Renata Viraudax is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadezra — the city of dreams — with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure 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 corrupt magic begins to weave its way through Nadezra, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart.
Darkly magical and intricately imagined, The Mask of Mirrors is the unmissable start to the Rook & Rose trilogy, a rich and dazzling fantasy adventure in which a con artist, a vigilante, and a crime lord must unite to save their city.
Trigger Warnings: blood, violence, death, mourning, loss of a loved one, drugs, drinking, poverty, disease
Orbit Books sent me an ARC. This does not impact my opinion of this book
The intricate clothing, szorsas reading a noble’s future, and a dark hood seeking justice in a world of corrupt politics had me obsessed and cutting my teeth on the pages. The pages turned. One hundred. Two hundred. Then every word felt like a brick that I needed to lift. Everything became exhausting despite my initial enthusiasm. That hope for a glittering debut disappeared along with any desire to read.
The Mask of Mirrors recalls that golden age era of fantasy with its intricate world and those soft and quiet moments that hook your heart onto a character. Like Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy, this series paints a world of violent politics and full corruption. It slowly weaves a story and focuses on the details of politics, bit by bit and inch by inch. As a reader, I love slowly built fantasy worlds. They are, to me, the SFF genre’s version of the slow burn. These are the worlds that allow me to know characters on such a level that the emotional climax creates a larger impact greater than shorter fantasy books are able to do.
I adore the grand arcs of Jacqueline Carey’s world, something particularly due to the detail she put into her worldbuilding and characterization. This book reminds me of those fantasy books but still something entirely of its own. Taking inspiration from various cultures, it takes on the conflict between cultures as well as class structures within the dominant society. It builds a world where queer people are normalized. They are the leaders of houses, fencing masters, good people, evil people, or sometimes all. Yet what seems complex and highly detailed quickly turns into an informational manual.
The Mask of Mirrors is structured to be rich and complex in its world building but not too much of it really manages to be all that convincing. It is more of a description novel than it is a making of a world type of novel. There is more description of clothing than there is an actual sense of the world and its magic. We’re described things, about clothing, about gods, about religious practices. All these things could very well be written about in a folklore book. These descriptions and their reliance on ‘aboutness’ doesn’t get me to see the world or even feel it.
What exactly is this world beyond the rooms the characters plot, sew, and converse in? The world is not experienced through the people but like mini facts throughout the novel, providing me with information but doing very little to allow me to experience the world and its magic. The Mask of Mirrors is more like the authors put in thought on the informational aspect of their world but did not push themselves to question how much should be left in the novel and how to sparse it out so it is not quite so packed without giving readers room to breathe. There’s detail and then there’s extraneous detail the pile of which is likened to that dragon hoarding all that gold in The Hobbit.
The Mask of Mirrors is dense the full way through. It is fully without breaks. That is the inherent problem of this book. It does not allow readers to breathe and enjoy the characters without being slammed in the head with a dictionary.
Throughout most of the story, I get the sense that I am to be pulled by the characters and their varied perspectives, each performing their own cons or their own sense for justice lost to them in this corrupt and terrible world. Normally, I’d want to see these characters with chips on their shoulders and vengeance in their futures. I rally for it. Frequently do I love to read that in a story. I am looking for the strings to hold onto some sort of emotion or sense of feeling towards these characters. Some, like Varos, are more interesting. Even with him I have difficulty finding myself clamoring for more and instead I am stuck with ambivalence or just your general numbness after being disappointed by a book. There is more work done on descriptions than there is character work and there is the problem.
The worst thing I could feel towards a book is ambivalence and I’m sorry that is the case here. I feel no hatred towards the writing, the characters, or really anything else in this book. All I know is what I feel, and underline that word please, is a lack of emotions or even a care for much of what was going on in the book. What seemed like an interesting story for the first 100 pages quickly became a tedious thing to pick up. When I am deliberately avoiding picking up a book we’ve got major problems.
I was distant from any emotions that I was supposed to have and that’s the biggest disappointment here. I wanted to feel things and no matter how much I tried to lift this book up I could not earn enjoyment.