Duo M.A. Carrick’s The Mask of Mirrors was far-and-away one of my favourite books of 2021. It was such an original, interesting fantasy novel! So I pre-ordered The Liar’s Knot with much anticipation, though as usual I didn’t actually get to reading it until now! That delay did not dampen my excitement, nor did Carrick disappoint me. There is no second book syndrome here, folx.
The Liar’s Knot picks up shortly after the end of the first book. Even so, the book provides a “the story so far” synopsis, and can I say that I want to see this more in fantasy series?? Bradley P. Beaulieu’s A Song of Shattered Sands series had a similar feature in its later books, and it is so helpful for forgetful readers like myself.
Spoilers for the first book but not this one.
We return to the cosmopolitan city of Nadežra. Ren, aka Renata, aka a couple of other aliases because she is a scammer (shock, gasp), has officially been adopted into House Traementis. Her nobility secured, Ren’s original plan to swindle the House has been sidetracked by inconvenient things like feelings and that whole “accidentally saving the city from devastation” that happened in the first book. At odds with recently-elevated noble and longtime crook Derossi Vargo, Ren finds herself growing uncomfortable close—in multiple personae—to Captain Grey Serrado. As much as she would like to reveal her true self to him and take comfort in another ethnically Vraszenian struggling to walk the line between loyalty to his people and preserving the peace of the city, Ren has other needs. For instance, she needs to understand why Azeraïs has apparently granted her the identity of the Black Rose in the form of the mask that she emerged with from Azeraïs’s Dream. She also knows that the enemies of House Traementis are still out there: a sickness suffuses Nadežra, and some will stop at nothing to seize power.
So much of my praise for The Mask of Mirrors stands for this book as well. The characters are so rich, diverse in their identities and attitudes but also so well developed. I love how much change the main characters undergo in this book. In particular, Ren has to walk a fine line in how she presents her various personae to people like Grey, who himself has his own secrets. Carrick makes a very smart choice in this book by choosing to reveal some of Ren’s secrets sooner rather than later (but I won’t say to whom or how!). I say this is smart because I think the easier but less interesting choice would be to try to have Ren walk that tightrope far too long, at which point the reveal becomes anticlimactic. The way that Ren’s relationships with Vargo, Grey, Giuna, and Tanaquis evolve as events unfold is so dynamic. Carrick keeps the reader guessing but also delivers the drama we want and deserve.
Likewise, the plot thickens. The Mask of Mirrors felt very much like a political fantasy novel. While The Liar’s Knot has elements of that, this story is more about personal connections to magic and to the city and its history. Unimportant events and remarks from the first book are revealed to be careful foreshadowing for the payoff in this book, once more confirming Carrick’s consummate skill. I also enjoy how all of the protagonists of the book ultimately want similar things, but their motivations are of course very different, and their methods are often at odds. This creates an excellent amount of conflict (and no small amount of humour as well) without throwing Ren into direct opposition with an antagonist too often.
If I had to make any criticism—and I am loath to do so, I loved this book so much—it would be that the antagonists are ill-defined and vague for most of the book. Oh, their motives are clear enough, albeit a little pedestrian. The magical nature of the mystery is a lot of fun, but the desire for power and political gain isn’t much of a surprise. In the end, the bad guys are not what makes this book.
Where The Liar’s Knot truly comes into its own, however, is the nature of Ren’s split identities. We see this through her own chapters but also through commentary from Grey, Vargo, and even Tess. Ren is no longer the street thief she grew up as. She has inhabited the persona of Renata so thoroughly that this is her life now—and unlike the first book, where that felt tenuous and short term, neither she nor Tess sees an endgame now. Is she going to be a noblewoman of House Traementis for the rest of her life, wearing imbued makeups to disguise her ethnicity, talking with an assumed accent, her sister forever her maid? Truly it’s a moving and moral dilemma that consumes Ren as much as the magical mystery of the plot consumes her, and it’s what kept me turning the page.
The end of my edition contains a tantalizing sample from the next book. I usually don’t bother, but I snuck a peek and wow can I not wait!
Kara love. Kara love a lot.