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The Mask of Mirrors, by M.A. Carrick

6 reviews

valpuri's review against another edition

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adventurous dark emotional mysterious medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

4.0


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tachyondecay's review

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adventurous challenging emotional mysterious tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

You all know how much I love me a good confidence story, as much as I love a good heist story. Throughout the years, fantasy has handed us many such wonderful stories and lovable rogues—some of which I have read, some of which I haven’t. The Mask of Mirrors will doubtless be compared to the most popular and celebrated of these, with merit and good reason. I’ll eschew such comparisons as de rigeur then, and get right into why this book is my first 5-star read of 2021. Under the pen name M.A. Carrick, authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms have created a stunning work of storytelling, characterization, and world-building.

After losing her mother at an early age, Ren grows up as a member of a gang of street thieves overseen by a ruthless crime boss. The novel opens with a whirlwind flashback to this life, in which Ren poisons the crime boss to allow her and her chosen sister, Tess, to flee the city of Nadežra for a better life. Fast forward to the present day: Ren has returned to her home city as Renata, playing the role of the daughter of an estranged branch of House Traementis. She plans to get into the good graces of Donaia, the head of the house, and in this way, scam and take the nobility of Nadežra for all she and Tess (who takes on the role of her long-suffering but seamstressly-gifted maid) possibly can. However, Ren/Renata is not the only one with plans upon plans for this city. Soon, magic and mischief collide to result in twists, turns, and tragedies that I didn’t see coming.
The Mask of Mirrors is what I can only describe as a sumptuous book. If it were a room, it would be decorated lavishly, extravagantly, yet it would contain cozy nooks and comfortable furniture. As every chapter unfolds, Carrick adds new layers—to the mysteries at the heart of the plot, and to the city of Nadežra. Like any good fantasy novel, Nadežra takes on a kind of character of its own—although, lest I get too far drawn into fantasy review tropes, let me emphasize that this is mostly about the cultures that clash within this metropolis.

Though some of the language reminds me of Venice, Nadežra itself feels like Istanbul/Constantinople. Ren belongs to an ethnic group known as the Vrazenians, who view Nadežra as a holy city, even though it was conquered centuries ago. Now the Vrazenians are a minority, oppressed by the ruling Liganti, mostly shunned to live in the most impoverished areas of the city. Ren’s heritage is at the forefront of the story: she conceals it as Renata; brings it to the fore when playing Arenza, a card-reading fortune-teller; and her connections to her people and her birthright influence how magic interacts with her. From the beginning, it’s clear that Ren might indeed be able to get into the good graces of House Traementis, but she can never be one of them. This is an anti-assimilationist narrative, one that Carrick leaves tantalizingly unresolved at the end of the book, and I am so intrigued to see what happens next. Similarly, I appreciate that while Carrick has been influenced by various real-world cultures in creating the Vrazenians, Liganti, and others, they are also careful not to create cookiecutter fantasy countercultures as seen in the works of, say, Jacqueline Carey. In so avoiding that, Carrick can explore ideas of ethnic strife and oppression without inadvertently making inappropriate comparisons to what has happened in actual history. The result is a complex tapestry of society that feels a bit like ours yet has a rich and complex history all its own.

Ren herself is such a great protagonist. She’s clever, but she isn’t a Mary Sue. Carrick deals her plenty of setbacks—some that I thought would surely sink her con—and much of the fun of this story is watching Ren and Tess adapt to the cards they get dealt. There are several intense climaxes to the early and middle acts of the book that result in sharp turns for the plot. (As I transition, I now better appreciate the pleasures of more than one climax!) Ren must pivot her con, somehow preserving its central purpose while also adapting to the new threat posed by House Indestor’s machinations. Along the way, she makes mistakes that ultimately contribute to people losing their lives, and this is something she is going to have to live with.

Some other great tropes here—“unlikely/reluctant allies” abound, from Ren’s interactions with the Rook to Renata’s flirtatious partnership with Derossi Vargo. (As an aside, figuring out the Rook’s secret identity is pretty much the only thing in this book I saw coming—although I like that Carrick implies there is some supernatural force powering the Rook’s crusade.) As the book winds down towards its resolution, Carrick sets up the board for the next chess game. I love the ambiguity of certain relationships and the calculated coldness of others. (I am being deliberately vague here to avoid spoilers.) Let’s just say that while flirtation and romance exist in The Mask of Mirrors, it was not particularly important to the story. Also, lots of normative queerness going on, which I appreciate!

As far as magic and worldbuilding goes, Carrick’s approach is refreshing. (I like this word better than “original,” because I agree that originality is a fraught concept in fantasy literature—but “refreshing” indicates that the approach, if not novel, is a welcome departure from the ideas and tropes currently in vogue.) Light on exposition, we’re left to fill in a lot of the blanks or understand that anything mentioned merely hints at a richer history and collection of cultures and nations, which I love. They don’t even really care to explain much of the rules of numinatria either—we get some really basic concepts, but so much is left to be guessed or inferred. In particular, the nature of Vargo’s relationship with Alsius is so intriguing yet never quite made explicit, and I adore this ambiguity.

The Mask of Mirrors is a book that lives up to its title. The story itself feels like many layers of masks reflected in the mirrors that are the characters Carrick creates. Everyone in this book has an agenda, is out for themselves, has a goal, and the conflicts are so compelling right from page one. If you like refreshing fantasy, if you like confidence games, if you like stories of tough-as-nails women rising above inequities created by class and ethnicity, then do yourself a favour and pick up this book. Reading this over a weekend made me feel so energized, and the fact that the book is thicc reminded me of my youth spent reading doorstopper fantasy.

Finally, Carrick manage the difficult feat of wrapping up the loose ends of this book’s plot while setting up for the sequel in a way that leaves me both satisfied and wanting more.

Kara like. Kara like a lot.

Originally published at Kara.Reviews.

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lennie_reads's review

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adventurous challenging dark mysterious reflective tense slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No

5.0

Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for my ARC. 

'may you see the face and not the mask'  

I don't even know where to start with this book. 

Whatever I say will be inadequate to describe the complexities of this incredible new fantasy world and the stunning myriad of morally ambiguous characters. 

Think Six of Crows meets Game of Thrones and yet nothing like that. There are multiple POV's that flow flawlessly, very fleshed out characters who always keep you on your toes and a unique, yet understated magic system.

Our *main* character is Ren, who escaped from a street gang as a child with her 'sister' after seeing her 'brother' murdered as a punishment for something she did. As as adult, and pro con artist, she comes back to Nadezra to trick a rich family into believing she is an estranged relative, with the help of her 'sister' Tess. There is also a magical masked vigilante called The Rook, who is a Robin Hood esque figure. And in her various personas, Ren crosses paths with The Rook often; one of the main mysteries of the book being the identity of The Rook. 

There are a lot of politics and world building which at times can be confusing, especially as there are different ways to tell the time, different amount of days in a week, different amount of months etc. The magic system is also very complex. However, the different cultures and traditions are fascinating. 

Whilst this world is arguably still racist and frequently mentions racial tensions caused by people stealing land, the queer side of things is much more positive. Same sex marriage is completely normal and acceptable, including adoptive heirs being fully legitimate. We also have a lot of trans rep in the book. 
My only issue with *some* of the trans rep is that it is mentioned that in some cultures in this world, people adopt a different gender to inherit leadership titles. Which, in a world that has no issue with same sex marriage, adoptions, trans people etc, felt a bit off. 
I'm not trans but I felt that it could come across as insensitive to say that some people choose to be trans to aid their situation when a lot of people struggle with coming out, being diagnosed, receiving medical assistance etc and in the end, being trans isn't a choice. 

Overall though I really really enjoyed it. It's a gritty, deep, wonderful, intricate, layered, mysterious fantasy featuring found family and moral ambiguity and I'm desperate for book 2. 

~

CW: sex trafficking, death, violence, murder, drug use, drug trafficking, neglect, homelessness, sex work

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bookforthought's review

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adventurous slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

4.0

What a ride this book was! I mean, only by reading the blub I knew this was a book for me: a con artist, a vigilante and crime lord, plus magic? Count me in for the ride!

Ren was an absolute joy as a main character and I loved, loved, loved following her. She definitely has everything it takes to pull off such an elaborate con: she's incredibly smart and knows how to manipulate people, using her knowledge, beauty and talent for disguise to their full effect. She's also fiercely loyal, and I adored her relationship with her sister Tess. Multiple POVs alternate throughout the book, and I think that worked extremely well.

I ended up feeling really invested in all the key characters. Each of them had their share of dangerous secrets, and they were all extremely well-rounded and multilayered. Special shoutouts to Vargo, a crime lord trying to work his way into local nobility, and Serrado, the conflicted captain who wants to use the guards' resources to benefit the lower classes instead of the rich. I loved these two so much!

But this is just scratching the surface. In this book there are so. many. characters! The cast is extremely varied and diverse, and it got to the point where I really struggled to remember who everyone was (especially when some of the names look quite similar). I did find out that there was a character list at the end, which I hadn't realised up until I got there (joys of reading the e-arc version!), and I would have definitely consulted it frequently if I had! There was also a glossary, which again would have been very useful had I noticed its existence before getting to the end of the book, since I struggled with remembering a lot of this world's vocabulary. Definitely won't make that mistake again!

The world itself was beautifully built, with its complex society and history. I particularly liked that characters came from different backgrounds, and seeing the world through their eyes made it easier to understand the ethnic, religious and class conflict in the book. The local traditions were especially interesting, and so crucial to the plot, that it was a great pleasure to just learn more about them. The descriptions were quite detailed, which often was nice, but sometimes felt just a tad too long, and didn't really help the pace.

Now, the pace was where my biggest issue with this book was. I often have this problem with adult fantasy books, so it's most likely a case of "it's not you, it's me", but for a large part of the book it just felt as if I was stuck in a loop: it didn't matter how much I read in a sitting, I just wasn't moving forward. As I said, I loved the characters and I enjoyed spending time with them, and the plot was engaging, full of twists and turns and danger and revelations, but still... somehow the pace felt off. Again, this is most probably me rather than the book itself, but it took something away from the experience for me.

Overall, though, The Mask of Mirrors was a really great read. Filled with engaging characters, a complex world, lies, danger, magic and a gripping plot, it's the perfect companion in these long, cold winter days. I'll take the rest of this trilogy now, please and thank you, I need to know what Ren gets up to next!

For this and more reviews, visit Book for Thought.

I received an e-arc of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.


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erin_lovell's review

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challenging dark mysterious sad tense slow-paced
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated

4.0


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literaturesciencealliance's review

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adventurous mysterious medium-paced
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

Video Review: https://youtu.be/4Vxz6q5gKEU

What a fun fantasy read! I loved the character relationships and how they developed throughout this story. I think even though it is a slow pace at the beginning I didn't mind because all I wanted to do was watch these quiet moments where characters are interacting with each other. Once the pace does pick up then the mystery and tension takes over and I couldn't put it down. My one complain is that the character relationships took more of a back seat than I wanted in the later end of the story when the pace picked up. The magic is also really interesting. I am always a fan of dream magic which plays a large roll in this story. There are lots of things still to learn but for a first book in a series I was really intrigued and happy with where it ended and the answers I did get to all the intriguing questions that this narrative gives you. Recommend this to anyone who likes multiple point of view adventure/political fantasy. 

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