Book Review: The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Rook & Rose
Publisher: Orbit (January 19, 2021)
Length: 672 pages
Author Information: Twitter
I’m a big fan of Marie Brennan and I’ve always wanted to read Alyc Helms, so when I found out about their collaboration on The Mask of Mirrors in which they would be writing together under the joint pen name of M.A. Carrick, I had some pretty high hopes. Hopes that weren’t completely realized, as it turned out—and I’ll go into them a bit later—but it also wasn’t a total loss, as there were certain aspects I thoroughly enjoyed.
First, the gist of the story: our main protagonist is a con artist named Ren who has come to the city of Nadežra to pull off her biggest grift yet. With her sister’s help, Ren has created and assumed the identity of a noblewoman, using it to trick her way into being accepted by House Traementis by posing to be a long-lost cousin. However, as her deception grows deeper, so too do her ties to the family she had set out to swindle. As their problems swiftly become Ren’s problems, our protagonist realizes for the first time the extent of the aristocracy’s role in the degeneration of the city.
Ren also quickly discovers that she is not the only one putting on a false show. Enter the Rook, a self-styled masked vigilante in the same vein as Zorro or Robin Hood—a champion of the poor and downtrodden. Certainly, for the real Ren, who had grown up in poverty far away from the swells of Nadežra, the Rook was the hero of every child. Unfortunately, a chance meeting with him while in the midst of her masquerade complicates things, as Ren becomes more entangled in the shady and nebulous affairs of the nobility.
Like I said, there were parts of the story I really enjoyed, and The Mask of Mirrors also contained some of my favorite fantasy tropes which had made me excited to read this book in the first place. I find it nearly impossible to say no to a con artist or a thief protagonist, for example, nor can I resist a richly layered world full of culture and magic, one that felt very reminiscent of The Lies of Locke Lamora at times. I’m also a big fan of strong, smart and capable female characters, and we have a shining example in Ren, whose mind proves to be her greatest weapon. Armed with a powerful memory and a careful eye for detail, she manages to sell her false identity to House Traementis, then proceeds to use her wits to outsmart or outplay them when they become suspicious.
But clocking in at almost 700 pages, this book also felt overly long, which wasn’t helped by the fact this story goes nowhere fast. To be fair, perhaps this was simply a negative but inevitable consequence of a plot revolving around a long con, which by definition necessitates more patience, planning, and a longer time to execute. That said, it’s still a pretty big ask for readers to persist through a prolonged intro in which nothing of much import happens, while the authors tediously describe in detail more than you would ever want or need to know about the world. It’s a common problem when it comes to debuts, so I was surprised to see it here, but then again, it might also be a case of two seasoned authors who both love world-building letting their enthusiasm get away from them, with no mediating force to pull them back.
The good news is, the later parts of the book fare much better, as the pacing improves and more conflicts are introduced to the plot. Quite some time would have been invested by the reader at this point though, and while the payoff was worth it, there are plenty of similar fantasy stories out there that don’t require such endurance and blind faith.
Bottom line, I think some collaborations need more time in establishing a groove and balance than others, and The Mask of Mirrors appears to be still finding its feet, but we also see a lot of progress made by the end of the book. For now, I have tentative plans to pick up the next novel, but I hope the storytelling will tighter and provide a smoother, more engaging reading experience.