Whenever I see the words “book one” or “first in a series” on the cover of a book, I’m always a little leery about whether or not it’s going to end on a cliff-hanger. There’s a difference between a trilogy that’s essentially just one story divided into three parts, and a trilogy that’s composed of three relatively self-contained tales.
As the first in THE BONE MASK TRILOGY by Australian poet Ashley Capes, City of Masks is enough of its own story to leave you satisfied, with just enough plot-threads left over for the next book to continue. So if you’re like me and have an aversion to cliff-hanger endings, rest assured that you won’t find one here.
In keeping with the trifold theme, there are three major POV characters at work in City of Masks, each with their own distinct storyline. Though two of these plots intertwine fairly early on, the third remains on the periphery of the main action until the final chapters, during which we finally learn how they’re all interconnected.
Notch is a mercenary and war veteran who wakes up in a prison cell, falsely accused of killing a little girl. Rescued by his friend Flir, a sardonic woman with preternatural strength, the two of them escape through the sewers (barely surviving a run-in with a rather Lovecraftian monster on the way) and begin the task of clearing Notch’s name.
In a rather more upscale area of the city, carver Sofia Falco learns of her brother’s death and that she is consequently the inheritor of the Greatmask Argeon. These bone masks are strange artefacts that provide wisdom and knowledge to those who wear them, opening up mysterious lines of communication with the entities that lie beyond (or within) each one. Such relics are passed down through the generations, but putting one into the hands of a daughter is extremely rare.
When her father is accused of treason, Sofia manages to elude the palace guards and hide within the anonymity of the streets. It’s not long before she crosses paths with Notch, and between the two of them their investigations uncover what can be described as a terrorist network (though that term is never used in the book itself) within the city of Anaskar.
Finally, Ain is a desert-dwelling member of the Medah, whose role as a Pathfinder means he is able to hear the echoes of passage across the sands long after its travellers have passed. Like many of his people before him, he is chosen for a dangerous quest to find the Sea Shrine, a place shrouded in mystery but which is said to hold the key to winning back lands lost to the Medah — the very terrain the city of Anaskar now stands on.
City of Masks contains a twisty plot, with plenty of political intrigue offset by the more traditional “quest narrative” that Ain’s story follows. Most of the action is set in Anaskar, a location worth mentioning considering its importance to the story; a three-tiered city on the edge of the sea which is brought to life through Cape’s vivid descriptions. From the luxurious mansions in the upper tier to the damp underground sewers where frightening creatures are regularly sighted, Anaskar is a place filled with danger, mystery and monsters — in many ways even more deadly than the desert.
The novel has a good sense of pacing: every chapter achieves something, and the world-building doesn’t get bogged down in extraneous details. Capes finds that delicate balance between giving the reader what they need to understand the foundations of the world and the author’s need to avoid lengthy info-dumps, with plenty of intriguing original ideas that sets City of Masks apart from the usual fantasy fare.
Particularly interesting is the Mascare, best described as Anaskar’s secret police, who wear masks to hide their identities and speak in neutral tones to disguise their voices — two traits that impostors are quick to exploit. As the book’s title would suggest, masks are a significant motif throughout the story, and the mysterious Greatmasks comprise another intriguing facet of this particular world. Capes knows how to mete out his exposition, yet leaving enough unsaid to hint at a richer history that exists behind the characters and their immediate activities. In the case of the Greatmasks, I’m looking forward to learning more about them in the forthcoming books.
Of the three main characters, Sofia is perhaps the most strongly rendered (no doubt helped by having the most suspenseful storyline, spending several chapters in a cat-and-mouse hostage situation), though Notch too has details of his background (specifically his years in battle) gradually revealed across the course of the novel, shedding light on his current state of mind. Ain is a little bit more of a cypher, without much insight given into the woman and unborn child that he has to leave behind — but hey, there’s still two more books left to cover that angle.
As other reviewers have mentioned, a map to orientate the reader would have come in very handy (I spent most of the book thinking Ain was MUCH further away from Anaskar than he really was), but on the whole City of Masks is an absorbing and fast-paced adventure down twisty streets and across hot desert sands. Despite the reasonably conclusive finish, which gives the main characters some temporary closure, it’s still going to be a lengthy wait for the next instalment.