Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 19 January 2021)
Series: Rook & Rose – Book One
Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Magic and masquerade combine into one of the most creative fantasy releases from the first half of 2021 with The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick, the first book in the Rook & Rose trilogy.
The Mask of Mirrors was a fantastic novel that caught a lot of buzz earlier in the year. This book was written by M. A. Carrick, the joint pen name of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, two established fantasy authors who are teaming together for their first novel. This debut novel was pretty impressive and the two talented authors ended up producing an exciting and complex fantasy tale that sees a young con artist attempt to change her fate.
Welcome to Nadežra, a city of iniquity and greed that forms the gateway between two warring cultures. Many people call Nadežra home, although few truly prosper, with only the great noble houses and their supporters gaining any true wealth. However, one young woman is about to change everything. Ren is a former street rat of Nadežra who escaped the city years ago to seek her fortune. Returning after several years, Ren has taken on an entirely new persona: Renata Viraudax, a mysterious and seemingly wealthy noblewoman from the capital, come calling on her long-lost relatives. Ren hopes to con her way into the once great noble family of House Traementis and use their name and legacy to make her fortune and ensure a comfortable life for herself and her sister. But as she begins to worm her way into the family, she soon finds that the life of a noble in Nadežra is far more complex than she ever imagined.
Despite their noble standing, House Traementis is in poor shape, and if Ren is going to make money off them, she first needs to ensure their success. However, a powerful rival family is seeking to destroy House Traementis, and they will do anything in their power to get their way. Forced to work with criminals and shadows to achieve her goal, Ren will find just how ugly the glittering nobles of Nadežra can be. Unbeknownst to Ren, a far more insidious presence is lurking within the city, killing children and unleashing corrupt magic for their own goals. Worse, this evil has a deadly connection to Ren’s past and wants to use her to destroy everything she holds dear. Can Ren overcome this evil while maintaining her cover, or will the nobility of Nadežra eat her whole?
This was an extremely captivating first outing from this new writing team, and I deeply enjoyed the cool and compelling story that they came up with. The Mask of Mirrors is a complex tale that expertly combines intriguing and clever fantasy elements with a thrilling confidence trick, as the protagonist attempts to work her way into high society. Of course, nothing works out that simply, as the protagonist soon finds herself embroiled in all manner of scandals, plots and deadly feuds, producing an excellent story.
While I did enjoy the overall narrative, the book did start off a little slow and it took me a while to get really excited about it. I personally only got hooked when the character of the Rook was added in. The Rook is a mysterious, Zorro-esque (perhaps more Tuxedo Mask than Zorro) character who haunts the streets of Nadežra, fighting oppression and tyranny while thumbing his nose at authority. Following a great duel sequence, the mystery of the Rook’s identity becomes a major part of the plot, and I found myself really getting into this and the other interesting storylines. The rest of the novel flows at a fantastic pace, especially after the authors set up so many fascinating and compelling plot points at the start of the book that slowly come to fruition. There are some amazing moments throughout the novel, and I was really impressed by a particularly tragic moment that occurred around two-thirds of the way through, which was shocking and surprising. The entire narrative comes together in an excellent conclusion, providing a satisfying and moving ending, while also setting up some excellent moments for the next two entries in the series. I did think that the novel could maybe have benefited from either finishing at the big moment I mentioned above, or by trimming around 100 pages out of the middle of the book. Some of the twists at the end of The Mask of Mirrors were also a little predictable, especially around the identity of the antagonists (it literally could not have been anyone else). However, I think that the eventual reveal about who was under the Rook mask was handled beautifully, and I honestly did not know which direction they were going to go in for much of the plot. I had a really amazing time getting through this story, and I look forward to seeing how these two talented authors continue it in the next two entries in the series.
The Mask of Mirrors contains a fantastic collection of characters who offer up a range of different perspectives and vantage points to tell a massive and complete narrative. The authors behind this book spent a lot of time building up the various characters, ensuring that they had intriguing and tragic backstories, which leads to some fantastic development throughout the course of the novel and the entire series. The most prominent character is Ren, a former local who attempts to pull off and ambitious con. Ren is a confident, talented, haunted figure, who experienced great tragedy at an early age and is still trying to pull herself together. She is forced to return to the city that she fled from years before to achieve greatness and make money and ends up connecting to her heritage as well as being forced to relive her greatest mistakes and traumas. I loved the fantastic storylines surrounding Ren, and she proves to be quite a complex character. Rather than being obsessed with money and dislike of the noble class in Nadežra, Ren grows to care for her marks and works to save them and the entire city when the antagonist makes their move. Ren proves to be an exceptional central character to follow, especially as she provides the most insight into one of the main magical disciplines featured in the book, and it will be very interesting to see how her storyline continues later in the series, especially after she gains a mask of her own.
Other great characters contained within this novel include ruthless rising crime boss Derossi Vargo, a man with great ambition who is willing to risk anything and anyone to achieve his goal. Vargo, a seemingly self-made man, proves to be one of the most entertaining and enthralling figures in the entire novel, and I deeply enjoyed seeing him work with Ren while enhancing his own plans. It looks like Carrick has some major plans for Vargo, and he could be an amazing overarching antagonistic figure. Another excellent character is Grey Serrado, a police officer and friend of the Traementis who finds himself investigating some of the major activities occurring the city. Grey is a conflicted and damaged character, constantly torn between his duty as an officer and his heritage. He goes through some major events throughout this novel and looks set to be a major figure throughout the rest of the series. I also enjoyed Ren’s adopted siblings Tess and Sedge, who act as fantastic supporting figures to Ren and her plans. Carrick develops them quite nicely and they prove to be entertaining figures who have a long and caring relationship with Ren. I also appreciated the focus on the members of House Traementis, the people that Ren is trying to con. The Traementis are a once great house who have fallen on hard times and are slowly falling into oblivion due to a rumoured curse. While you initially aren’t too concerned with these characters, due to their status as patsies, the three surviving members swiftly grow on you, enough that you eventually start to judge Ren’s continued attempts to con them. Finally, I have to say that the masked Rook was a particularly awesome character, and I deeply loved his inclusion in the plot. It was so much fun trying to figure out who he was, and the authors utilised him to perfection to create an outstanding narrative.
You cannot talk about The Mask of Mirrors without discussing the complex and distinctive setting that is the city of Nadežra. Nadežra is a sprawling, independent city state resting on a delta, filled with palaces, slums, massive buildings and all manner of different people. Due to its unique history, Nadežra is home to several distinct ethnic groups, the local Vraszenians underclass and the Liganti upper class. The two ethnic groups are opposites, and there is substantial friction between them, especially as the Vraszenians feel like second-class citizens in their own historical city. While most of the novel shows the two groups living mostly in harmony, the lingering tension between the two groups becomes a major plot point as the novel, and I think that the authors did an outstanding job highlighting this and using it as part of the story. Carrick provides detailed explorations of the different cultures between the two groups, and it was interesting to see how it partially paralleled some real-life political situations. It was also quite interesting to see that, despite the cultural differences and clashes, Nadežra proves to extremely woke and tolerant when it comes to issues of gender and LGTB+ issues. Not only are there several prominent female figures within the city but there also several homosexual, nonbinary and transgender characters. I love the way in which most modern fantasy novels are featuring more and more of these aspects in their settings, and this was a great example of that. The city of Nadežra proves to be a very magical place, and there is so much detail, backstory and culture contained within that the reader will feel like they are actually walking the streets.
Carrick also comes up with several distinctive forms of magic, which are as diverse and different as the various cultures contained within the city. There are three major forms of magic shown in the book, although I had to say that I found all three of them to be a little less dramatic than you would expect in a fantasy book. The first one of these is numinata, which is sort of a combination of geometry and astronomy, often using complex glyphs or geometric patterns. Numinata is generally used by the Liganti and is considered a more cultured and precise form of magic. The Vraszenian magic, on the other hand, is based on patterns and dreams, and is mostly shown through the protagonist’s pattern reading, a form of tarot card reading which gives glimpses into the past, the present and the future. The final form of magic is imbuing, which allows the user to put a little bit of their essence into an item or product to enhance its effect. All three magics are featured fairly prominently within The Mask of Mirrors and prove to give the novel a unique feel, while also highlighting the cultural and social differences between the ethnic groups. While I did think that much of the magic was a little undefined in the novel, it becomes a key part of the plot, and it was interesting to see how the combination of magics could create some nightmarish results. Overall, I deeply enjoyed the extraordinary and detailed setting that Carrick came up for The Mask of Mirrors and I found myself getting really lost in its spectacle and details. While I would have preferred just a little more info about the universe’s magical rules, I felt that Carrick did a wonderful job pulling this together, and it was a definite highlight of this great book.
I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Mask of Mirrors, narrated by Nikki Massoud, who has done several interesting audiobooks in the last year. While this is a pretty long audiobook (at 23 hours and 13 minutes, it is the 17th longest audiobook I have ever listened to) I am actually incredibly glad that I ended up checking out the audiobook format of this book. The complex narrative and immensely detailed setting really came to life, and I found myself absorbing a whole lot more of the story and the beauty of the background. However, the real advantage of this format was the outstanding narration by Massoud. Massoud did an exquisite job portraying the various characters featured within The Mask of Mirrors, capturing each figure perfectly and providing them with an outstanding and wildly fitting voice. To achieve this, Massoud utilises a wide array of different voices and accents, which really help you differentiate the various characters, and which help to show their nationality or social status. I was particularly impressed at how Massoud was able to showcase the various personas of the main character, Ren. This was achieved by seamlessly changing accents depending on which character Ren was playing at the time. For example, when Ren was with her sister or pretending to be a local, Massoud would use the rougher, more exotic accent that all the Vraszenian characters have. However, when the character changed back into the persona of Alta Renata, her voice would become a lot more cultured, mimicking the nobility. This seamless change between the various voices was perfectly done, and I really appreciated the narrator’s determination to capture the separate halves of the character. This was some truly impressive voice work, and I think that listening to the audiobook format ended up adding to my overall rating for the novel.
The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick is an outstanding and moving fantasy novel that I had a wonderful time reading. Featuring an excellent narrative, some complex characters and a detailed and memorable fantasy setting, this debut novel from the writing team of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms was an immense amount of fun and I really got into this fantastic story. The Rook & Rose trilogy looks set to a spectacular series and I am quite excited to see how all the books turn out. The next entry, The Liar’s Knot, is set for release in December, and I look forward to continuing this great series into the New Year.