A very belated review for a truly wonderful fantasy full of twists, magic and glamour!
Book: The Mask of Mirrors by MA Carrick
Publication date: 21st Jan 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Violence, injury and death, including major character death, death of children, and death of family members; fantasy racism, classism and xenophobia; drug/alcohol abuse; some horror elements involving zombie-like creatures.
Fortune favors the bold. Magic favors the liars.
Ren is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadežra with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house, securing 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 nightmare magic begins to weave its way through the City of Dreams, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled…with Ren at their heart.
Somewhere about 150 pages into this book, I paused for breath and thought, “Yes. This is exactly the kind of fantasy that I love.” And honestly, if I could leave you with that for a review, it would say enough – not many books manage to feel fresh and original and genuinely unpredictable, but also as completely, overwhelmingly right as putting on your favourite pyjamas. This is fantasy that absolutely hits all my major buttons – a wonderfully rich world with an elaborate social system, facinating, flawed characters, and just enough magic to keep it all ticking over – and also a lot of my more specific loves – con artists, dressmaking, decaying old aristocratic families, multiple forms of magic, casual queerness, social intrigue, flirting, fencing, flirting while fencing! – so I cannot sing the praises of The Mask of Mirrors highly enough. It’s a rather twisty book, so I’m going to be deliberately opaque in talking about characters and plot, as I think it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.
I’d heard from multiple friends that it had a challenging opening, with a lot of information to take in – if you’ve also heard this, take it with a large pinch of salt if you’re a seasoned fantasy reader. It’s really nothing out of the ordinary in terms of how much knowledge you need! I ran into a little bit of difficulty with pronunciation on some of the names, but it wasn’t hard to keep them straight, even if I’d prefer not to have to say them aloud. I actually thought that the world-building and backstories were dripped in pretty much at the perfect pace – yes, this is an intricate setting, but you get a wonderful feel for the city and its people very quickly. There’s something a little Venetian in the river-city setting, but it’s not a wholesale cipher; there’s a lot more going on as the world unfolds. I will say that this was a book I found myself unintentionally reading at a much slower pace than usual – it’s just under 650 pages, but it took me around a week to finish it.
Books with multiple point-of-view characters can often feel a little uneven to me, where I like one or two plotline/characters less than others; while I had my favourites and least favourites among the cast, there was never a point where I wanted to be in any other point of view than the one I was reading. Yes, I felt the urge to know what was going on after cliffhanger chapters, but not at the expense of the other plots! Ren is definitely the most interesting character to me, but I was lucky that although there are multiple plots, hers felt like the main one, which meant we spent a lot of time on her! All the other characters are great too, and I was constantly amazed at the ways in which even the most insignificant character moments turned out to be very important later on – no one and nothing here is filler. Many ‘oh!’ moments await a careful reader!
This is a book filled with incredibly rich visuals, from the different locations in the city to the fashion – if you’re someone who enjoys clothes in fantasy, this is an absolute treat. I was amazed at how much detail could be packed into each scene; it’s such a vividly imagined world and feels so real. Alongside all the glamour of Nadežra’s masquerades and tea parties, the book makes sure to show the darker horrors lurking in the shadows, from the magical to the mundane. Many of our characters stand in the borders between classes and nationalities, in a city awash with racism; it quickly becomes apparent that Nadežra is a tinderbox and the widespread cultural erasure and poverty are not going to be able to be ignored much longer. The city’s rotten heart is an ever-present shadow on its glamour, and it makes for an utterly fascinating setting.
Every so often I find it completely impossible to sum up how much I love a book without going into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say this: this is a brilliant, brilliant read for anyone who loves chunky, intricate fantasy. It’s definitely one you should try if you love The Lies of Locke Lamora, but I’d also say fans of the Mistborn books or the setting of Kushiel’s Dart should give this a go. I’m really excited to read the rest of the trilogy after that explosive ending – book two, The Liar’s Knot, is out now, and I think the third book is out sometime this year. Five out of five cats, obviously!