Crystal Mask by Katherine Roberts
Crystal Mask is the second book in Katherine Robert’s ECHORIUM SEQUENCE. Unlike Song Quest which I first read as a child, Crystal Mask was new to me. I can’t help wishing I had encountered it as a child because I would have been far less fussy about the plot. Adulthood has come with a propensity to pick holes as you will discover if you are minded to read on. Nevertheless, Crystal Mask is a worthy successor to a story I have always loved.
Crystal Mask is set 20 years after Song Quest’s finale. Kherron is now Second Singer at the Echorium. Rialle is also a singer but choses to live outside the Echorium walls in order to remain friends with the merlee. The story begins in similar vein to Song Quest. We meet a young novice singer, Renn, who can hear half creatures. Renn’s world is changed forever when a wild young girl with the ability to break bones with a single kick is dragged into the Echorium. Shaiala claims that she has been kidnapped from her family of centaurs by terrifying “two hoof” humans. Renn is skeptical but the girl’s story resonates with Kherron who suspects that his old enemy, the evil priest Frazhin, wielder of the khiz crystal, is behind these events. And so Renn reluctantly sets out to the mainland with Kherron in order to translate Shaiala’s half creature speech.
On the mainland the stories split, a divergence that Robert’s handles with the same skill as she did in Song Quest. Shaiala is desperate to find her beloved centaurs but her escape attempt lands her in the hands of a group of child kidnappers. Locked in a dungeon she meets Erihan, a young horse lord who faces their situation with remarkable alacrity. The adventure picks up for the pair and they come into contact with an ominous woman who wears a mask of black crystal.
Meanwhile the Singer party searches for Frazhin. Renn begins to regret his unpleasant behavior towards Shaiala (although it is extremely hard to care because he is such a persistent winger). The Singer party has their fair share of adventure, teaming up with horse lords and enlisting help from a new addition to the half creature family (a half snake, half human called a naga). They learn that Frazhin is constructing a crystal palace in the Sunless Valley where children are being taken as slaves. To get to the palace they must cross the Pass of Silence where a single whisper can bring the mountains crashing down.
I experienced the same delight marred by a tinge of frustration on reading Crystal Mask as I did with its predecessor, though the tinge was stronger here. Roberts’ central imaginative flourishes — the singers and the half creatures continued to enchant in their second outing. She is superb at adding deft touches and the story is crammed full of exciting characters, evocative settings and that perfect twinkle of magic and mystery. If you like centaurs, then Roberts’ take on them, a homage to her love of horses, will offer something both charmingly familiar and brand new.
The characters are developed and, most importantly, they are interesting. Shaiala in particular is a perfect creation, wild and belligerent in her mistrust for the “two hoof” humans but entirely lovable. Her system of centaur kicks, from the Dragonfly to the Double Hare, are used to great effect. Readers of Song Quest will be thrilled by the chance to meet grown-up Kherron and will find him appropriately abrasive. We also get to meet Song Quest favorites Frenn and Lazim. I’m not sure if we are supposed to like Renn (like Rialle before him he can be supremely irritating) but he develops convincingly enough.
The frustration came from reading a book that has the makings of a perfect story but is let down by some glaring plot omissions and woefully two-dimensional villains. Poor Frazhin barely gets a look in and his female accomplice was a mystery to me and not in an enigmatic sense. Then there are so many things that don’t quite add up. It was not at all clear why Shaiala was sent to the Singers in the first place. It seemed a pretty stupid thing to do on the part of her enemies. The khiz crystal, which appears to have vast but random power, is curiously unexplained. How it works and how it is able to imbibe and relay songs is unclear. This is problematic given its central role in the story. Nor did I understand the true motivation behind the building of the crystal palace and why children are being kidnapped to work in it. I suspect these confusions are a symptom of an overstuffed story. The plot is more complex than that of Song Quest and suffers for it.
Nevertheless the ECHORIUM SEQUENCE continues to hold its place in my heart. To someone that values a sterling imagination, Crystal Mask is a picturesque fantasy. Suspend disbelief and don’t be too grown-up and you will be rewarded with a charming adventure.