Like The Hunger Games, E.C. Blake’s Masks is the beginning of a “young adult friendly” trilogy about a young female protagonist who must overcome an oppressive system and defeat an evil dictator. In the isolated island-world of Aygrima, every adult must wear a magical Mask. Should the Mask-wearer think any disloyal or rebellious thoughts about the Autarch, then the Mask will reveal their crimes to the emperor’s private police force. Our heroine, a fifteen-year-old girl named Mara, looks forward to apprenticing to her father to become a Maskmaker in service to the Autharchy. She eagerly awaits her own Masking but — gasp! — the Masking ceremony goes awry, and she is swept off with the other teenagers who fail their magical test of citizenship. This initial premise is the most original and interesting piece of the book. The rest of the novel is a series of oh-no-she’s-been-caughts followed by whew-she-was-rescued-that-was-closes. During her adventures, Mara comes to question her father’s motives, discovers her own unusual magical powers, and comes to believe that the Autarch and his Masks are in need of a good overthrowing.
In the vein of most popular young adult novels, the plot trots along snappily from crisis to crisis. Sometimes it’s propelled by moments of unlikely coincidence (what are you doing here? Well, that’s convenient), but mostly it’s swept along by its own momentum. In this effortless pacing, E.C. Blake’s other life as Edward Willett, writer of young adult SFF, is quite evident. (Willett also writes nonfiction, and writes adult fantasy under the name Lee Arthur Chane). There is also a steady supply of surprises which, if not precisely revelations, keep the world of Aygrima growing.
Despite some truly inventive concepts, Masks lacks the compelling, stark edge of The Hunger Games and suffers from a set of problems which keep it from being the completely enjoyable fantasy romp it aspires to be.
First and most jarringly, Blake’s language is sometimes poorly chosen. This is not an idle reviewer’s jab at young adult fiction. Especially in fantasy, the subtle decisions of syntax are crucial to the building of a new world. Ursula Le Guin wrote about the problem in 1979, in an essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction). Fantasy worlds are wild and strange places, she tells us, “where no voice has ever spoken before.” The fantasy writer is the voice in the void, and he can’t use the same familiar description and dialogue that he would use to write about our world. Mara and her friends feel very much like they belong in Poughkeepsie. They say things like “beats me” and “weather permitting,” and speak and think essentially like teenagers in upstate New York rather than pseudo-Roman youths who live in a masked society on an isolated island.
Blake’s construction of gender is also problematic in places. Ostensibly, it’s a straightforward story with a “strong” female character who goes on adventures. But the longer I read the more bizarre the portrayal of gender became. The threat of rape is weirdly constant in Aygrima. Let me first state that sexual abuse is a subject that absolutely belongs in young adult fiction — partly because teenagers are not morons and they sense paternalistic censorship at 100 yards, blindfolded, but also because 44% of sexual abuse and assault victims are under the age of 18. It is part of their daily lives, whether or not concerned parents associations ban such risqué material from their libraries.
But Masks seems to simplify and flatten the complex horror of rape. In Aygrima, there are apparently only two kinds of men: Soulless rapists who leer, pinch, stare, and grope, and noble young men who fall immediately in love with Mara and keep their leering and staring to a minimum. Those young men who hang in Mara’s periphery are almost more disturbing in their casual physicality. After one of the many, many periods where Mara is unconscious (at least five chapters end with her sliding into blackness), it’s revealed that the two young men both enthusiastically volunteered to bathe her while she was comatose. Apparently, the desire to fondle a naked teenager is cute and funny, because she coyly confronts them a few pages later and they all have a nice laugh about it.
The last flaw in Masks is shared pretty liberally throughout the fantasy genre: the trope of the Evil Empire ruled by a corrupt autocrat. I have no difficulty believing in evil empires or corrupt autocrats. No one who has glanced backwards over their shoulders into history, or even paused to look around their own everyday world, can escape them. But I have trouble swallowing the empires that have no system to them. There must some real reason that the populace permits the empire to exist, because otherwise empires end in bloody revolutions. They have to have a staggeringly brilliant propaganda machine that venerates the god-king or rationalizes genocide, or perhaps a clever method of maintaining a class of entitled citizens who get to loll around on cushions drinking wine, or an Orwellian strategy that prevents the people from seeing their own oppression. Katniss’s world, where starving people annually sacrificed their teenagers, never rang true. And neither does Mara’s world, where citizens are required to cover their faces with duplicitous masks or face the horrors of the mines.
Younger readers — who are typically unconcerned with the mechanics of empire — are likely to find plenty of fun and adventure in Mara’s story. Like them, Mara is young, occasionally indecisive, and tossed around in a confusing world.