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.