Friday, January 15, 2021

The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick

M.A. Carrick is a pseudonym for authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, and The Mask of Mirrors is their first book together. It’s high fantasy set in a world with magic, and it starts the Rook and Rose series. I received a free review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The book is written by two anthropologists and it shows. Tremendous work has gone to creating a world with hundreds of details ranging from directions (earthwise/sunwise) and times of day (sun hours and earth hours) to rules of card games and duels. The various peoples living in the city of Nadežra have their unique cultures with different clothing, deities and even funeral habits, from nobility to street gangs. None of it is explained to the reader; there are no info dumps and the reader is left to learn everything as they go. Mostly it works well—much of it is intuitive and none of it is vital for following the story—but there was so much of it that it was exhausting at times. There is a map and a glossary, but they’re not very easy to use in an ebook.

Nadežra is a city ruled by conquerors, and the peace between the ruling (white) people and the (Romani-type) tribes whose holy town is occupied, is tenuous at best. No one is happy with the situation, and there are elements on both sides that have decided to do something about it—at the same time.

In the middle of this arrives Ren with her sister Tess. They are former street urchins who have escaped from their cruel gang lord several years earlier, and have now returned to Nadežra with a bold plan to infiltrate a noble family and get rich. It’s a long con based on Ren’s skills at pretence and lying and her knowledge about the family she’s about to dupe.

Things start very well and Ren makes a splash in the society. But in order to maintain her con, she is drawn into the affairs of nobility and crime lords alike. The only way out is forward and Ren isn’t about to give up. Not even when she realises that the entire city is at risk and she might be the person to destroy it.

The book is divided into four parts. The first two are mostly a set-up for the latter two, and they are very slow to read. There’s a lot going on, but no plot to follow. The narrative doesn’t carry the reader forward, and it’s difficult to figure out what is important to pay attention to. The chapters don’t have an action-sequence pattern, and often when a chapter ends with a call to action, nothing comes of it, or the action happens where the reader cannot see, making them feel let down. This applies to all the point of view characters. They show up at random intervals to do something that seems random, or their chapters exist only to introduce the character. Tess, for example, doesn’t have a plot-influencing role, but she has her own chapters.

This changes after the half point. The latter two parts have a coherent plot that sweeps the reader with it and doesn’t let go. Ren discovers several schemes to destroy the city, and instead of working on her con, she finds herself trying to save Nadežra. The reader is kept guessing to the end if and how she might be able to do it.

This is a book that relies very much on Ren’s character. She’s a survivor who is willing to do pretty much anything to keep herself and Tess safe. Her morals are questionable from the start, but she changes along the way. The con becomes less important after she comes to like the people she’s trying to dupe, and saving the town becomes a priority over the con—though she’s also doing it to save herself.

There are several other characters too, none of which are easy to get a hang of. Are they good or bad, love-interests or backstabbers, and will they play any role in the final? Some people that we spend a lot of time with in the first half disappear completely, making them a waste of reader’s time, and we never get to know the baddies. But the characters with their POV chapters are all interesting, with secrets that aren’t revealed in this first book—but at least we learn the biggest one, the identity of the Rook. I would’ve been really annoyed if I’d had to wait for that any longer than I did.

All in all, this was a very mixed reading experience. I was ready to give up several times during the first half, as the story didn’t seem to go anywhere. But then I read the latter half in two days. And I’m glad I persevered, as the pay-off was satisfying, and there were a couple of interesting twists saved for the last. It just didn’t need the almost seven hundred pages to get there. Ren ends up in a new place in life and it’ll be interesting to read where she’ll take her con from here.


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