Map of Blue Book Balloon

7 May 2021

#Review - The Mask of Mirrors by M A Carrick

Cover design
by Lauren Panepinto

The Mask of Mirrors (Rook and Rose, Book 1)
MA Carrick
Orbit, 21 January 2021
Available as: PB, 630pp, audio, e
Source: PB and audio
ISBN(PB): 9780356515175

I'm grateful to the publisher for a paperback copy of The Mask of Mirrors to consider for review. 

I actually "read" most of this book listening to it on audio, because my reading and scheduling is all over the place right now (and when I say "now" I means "always") and that way I can access a few more books. It might seem not the best choice because The Mask of Mirrors is more than 25 hours on audio, and so took a couple of months to finish. (Of course once I got within sniffing distance of the end I switched to the paperback because EXCITING FINISH).

In other ways it was a good choice because audio suits this story exactly. I generally find the experience of listening to a book more immediately immersive but it especially fits the complex, intricate world that M A Carrick (Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms writing together) creates.

We are in the city - the city state - of Nadežra, a merchant enclave with something of a feel of Renaissance Venice: Nadežra is a place founded on inlets and islands, a sort -of Republic run by noble houses with trading interests who govern though a council, the Cinquerat. A great deal of the background to the story is rooted in this hierarchy - we're particularly interested in one of the noble houses, House Traementis, whose fortunes have rather fallen, and there is a great deal of business with charters and commerce, involving a long-lost member of the family, Renata, who shows a singular ability to get things done and who may just be what Traementis needs to reclaim some of their lustre.

The only problem is... Alta Renata is actually Ren, a skilled con artist and former thief from the gutters of Nadežra, set on liberating some of that Traementis wealth and diverting it to more deserving causes (Ren, and her sister, Tess, who poses as Ren's maid). We only learn Ren's story gradually, in patches and from different points of view, but it is a sad one, evoking sympathy. I couldn't but admire Ren's and Tess's planning and audacity. In particular, Carrick makes clear how the whole thing depends on appearances: the right dress for the right occasion, with Tess continually stitching, ripping and reworking, all on a budget since the pair have no money. The styles and choices are described, and how they reflect or exploit the current fashions in Nadežra - all serving to make the city very, very real, almost tangible.

Gradually, as Ren becomes genuinely friendly with the serving members of House Traementis, her motives become cloudier and she seems less inclined to do them for every last coin she can and more to use her remarkable talents for mutual gain. She is, though, always in danger if her secret is revealed - imitating a noble is seen as a dreadful crime, and the penalty one of being trafficked in the slave ships. So throughout this story Ren (and to some degree Tess) are changing perspective and developing as characters.  

Through them, Carrick also explores a whole dimension of colonialism and class inequality in Nadežra, whose ruling nobles actually derive from Liganti invaders, the indigenous poeople of the region being Vraszanians like Ren and Tess. In the audio, this is marked by the switch Alta Renata's cool, very Standard English, accent compared with the thicker, foreign inflected accent used as Ren's 'own' speech. Ren uses this same voice when she's playing the part of a fortune teller, something she does quite often since the use of cards to divine the past, present and future is an obsession among the Vraszanians, a way to earn a little money and also a means the author uses to hint at where the story is going. This was where the audio was slightly frustrating because the system of cards as developed by Carrick is understandably very visual, and without following the words on the page that describe what's happening in the various readings (some of them real, some faked by Ren or other characters as the need arises) it can be hard to keep track of what's happening.

That in no way reduces the delight of this story, though, which simply teems with life. Carrick introduces us variously to police, haughty nobles, a dashing and daring Robin Hood style outlaw, 'the Rook', a faction of Vraszanian rebels, rival mobsters with their own street gangs and trading interests, and a couple of magicians (magic - numinatria - is a Thing here, although seen more as an offshoot of sacred geometry than an occult art). The conception of all this, the different viewpoints, the manoeuvring and skullduggery between the houses and the skin-of-her-teeth efforts of Ren to keep her true identity secret and present herself as the wealthy and privileged Alta Renata, give the first half of the book something of the air of a Dickens novel. There is simply so much going on, yet it's all so skilfully depicted that one never feels swamped. 

Above all it feels real.

The city and its residents established, with the second half, Carrick swerves hard in other directions. It's impossible to say much about this without some spoilers about certain shocking events, but what I will say is, Carrick is BRUTAL with some of what happens and, like Ren, she's playing a shell game. I certainly never suspected where the book was going and if the minutiae of the first half didn't suit you, well, the second part is very different (magic may be involved, is all I will say) and, as it were, scratches quite a different itch. There are more plots than Ren's at work and compared to some of what's revealed, she is pretty much an innocent.

I'd wholeheartedly recommend The Mask of Mirrors if you love a well worked out, immersive fantasy world peopled by a gallery of obstreperous characters who may make temporary alliances but are, mostly, never going to get on.

And it's only the first 'Rook and Rose' book - the title suggests that the focus will be slightly different again from what we might expect based only on this one...

For more information about The Mask of Mirrors, see the publisher's website here.

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