The Upshot: An absorbing masquerade with countless memorable characters, deep worldbuilding, and layered schemes, this is sure to be one of the best books of the year – if not the best.
The Mask of Mirrors, by M.A. Carrick (Rook and Rose, Book One) Published January 21st, 2021 by Orbit Paperback, 630 pages Finished Reading February 15th, 2021
Alta Renata Viraudax is the daughter of Letilia Traementis, disgraced and long estranged from the Traementis family, which now consists only of matriarch Donaia and her children, Leato and Giuna. Letilia has been living for decades in a far-away country, struck from the family register. Now her daughter has come to Nadežra, seeking to make amends. Renata will have to work hard to prove that she is not her mother, if she ever expects the Traementis family to take her in.
This is the lie she tells them. This is the lie they believe.
Renata is not Letilia’s daughter. She is Ren, a con artist, who has returned to Nadežra seeking not to make amends with a long-lost family, but to worm her way into their good graces and liberate herself and her sister, Tess, from a life of servitude and poverty. They have Ren’s skill as a liar; they have Tess’s deft needle to make striking outfits. They will pit this against all the forces of Nadežra, and the funny thing is – they might just come out on top.
The Mask of Mirrors is the first book in the “Rook and Rose” adult fantasy series. A genuine doorstopper at 630 dense pages, this is a book that both demands and deserves your full attention. Some may find themselves lost in the many characters, the shifting alliances, the delicate dance of politics that Ren throws herself into in order to get what she wants. You have to have some tolerance for the slow burn, for a story that takes its time to set up every character and corner of its world.
Personally, I adored it. I was sucked in from the beginning by absorbing prose and a vast array of compelling, distinct characters. This is a book you get comfy for, because you’re going to be sitting and reading for a while. You’ll dip into the world and look up later only to realize a few hours have passed without you realizing it. You’ll start listening obsessively to the soundtrack that one of the authors curated for the story (my hot take is that if some enterprising individual ever makes an HBO show out of this series they should be required by law to set the opening credits to Primavera by Ludovico Einaudi). Look, I just really liked it, okay?
Are there problems? Naturally, as in any book. Personally, I was enraptured by the subtle games of politics, shifting alliances, and general skulduggery in the first two thirds, slightly less so by the magic-heavy finale. It’s all connected and very intricately plotted, don’t get me wrong, but give me subterfuge over fighting any day. (Unless it’s a duel. Give me ALL the duels. The duels in this are great.) Still, that feels like a minor complaint, all things considered.
I could keep going. I could talk about all the characters I loved (Vargo! Serrado! Tanaquis! Leato! Giuna! And of course, Ren and Tess, plus other characters whom I dare not name for fear of spoilers.) I could talk about the well-integrated themes, which deal with the lingering effects of colonialism in the forms of class oppression and simmering revolution. I could talk about the freaking pattern decks (think tarot), and how I want one, and please someone make one please. (Also, the fact that the authors – Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, writing under a joint pen name, actually did the patterns themselves and worked them into the book is beyond cool.) I could talk about the way that queerness is embedded and totally normalized in the novel, the latest in a string of books I’ve read that proves LGBTQ people belong in fantasy, dammit. And so on. But, mostly, what I want to say is this:
If you enjoy deep worldbuilding, slow-burn long cons replete with nuanced politics and scheming, and characters you care about, you might get a kick out of The Mask of Mirrors. I know I did. And hey, if nothing else the sequel (with the fabulous title The Liar’s Knot) is coming out this November, so if you dive in now you’ll be all caught up in plenty of time to continue the story.
Next Time: Into the Dark, by Claudia Gray, and a Star Wars: The High Republic update