The Liar’s Knot: A welcome and more than satisfying sequel

The Liar’s Knot by M.A. Carrick science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Liar’s Knot by M.A. Carrick science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Liar’s Knot by M.A. Carrick

The Liar’s Knot (2021), M.A. Carrick’s follow-up to the quite good Mask of Mirrors, does not disappoint as a sequel, offering up the same level of complex plotting, strong characterization, and fluid writing seen in book one even as it (mostly) avoids the dreaded MBS (Middle Book Syndrome). It’s nigh on impossible to discuss it without major (and I mean major) spoilers for book one, so if you haven’t read Mask of Mirrors, you seriously want to stop here (seriously), though before you go you should feel confident starting the series based on the high quality of the first two books (and perhaps based as well on the pedigree of the two co-authors — Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms — who make up M.A. Carrick, if you’re familiar with their work).

I’m going to cheat here and reuse the setting description and list of characters from my review of Mask of Mirrors, with a few updates based on the events of that novel. Last warning for major spoilers!

The setting is the city of Nadezra — ruled over by an occupying, mostly corrupt, noble elite whose ancestors conquered the surrounding land, then were driven out of all but the city, which in the peace treaty became “shared,” in the sense that the conquerors (the Liganti) rule and the natives (the Vraszenians) get access to their holy sites. The story has one truly main character — Ren — and a number of other major characters:

Ren: A young woman, former child of the streets, who with her blood-sister Tess ran a long con to insinuate herself into one of the city’s powerful (or, once-powerful, to be more accurate) families by impersonating an estranged “niece” they’ve never met or heard of. Now firmly ensconced in House Traementis, she must try to keep her true backstory hidden while maintaining several disguised roles (mystic Vraszenian Pattern-reader — think Tarot but with power — and justice-seeking, mask-wearing vigilante, the Black Rose), all while trying to resurrect House Traementis to its former standing, help the oppressed Vraszenians, fight the city’s corruption, figure out the secret identity of The Rook (see below), avoid the machinations of Derossi Vargo (see below), and defeat a secret mystic cult that might just destroy the city.

Grey Serrado: Captain of the Vigil — the Nadezra police force — and as revealed at the end of Mask of Mirrors, The Rook, a sort of a nationalistic Batman who has been protecting the Vraszenians of Nadezra for 200 years, with one Rook handing the role down to a younger replacement over the centuries. A native Vraszenian working for the hated Liganti, Serrado is stuck between two worlds as he tries to protect his people and change the system from within. He’s also seeking to avenge the death of his brother, a death he now knows is linked to Derossi Vargo (see below). Serrado knows Ren’s secret identities, but she does not know he is the Rook.

Derossi Vargo: A young crime lord who, like Al Pacino in the Godfather films, sought in book one to go “legit” by joining the nobility, something he managed by the end of that book, so he is now head of House Vargo, much to the dismay of many of the traditional noblefolk.

House Acrenix: One of the more powerful houses. Led by Ghiscolo Acrenix, it also includes his daughter Sibiliat. Both of them are schemers of ill intent.

There are a number of important somewhat secondary but significant characters, as well as a good number of others (tertiary?) still integral to the plot if less so and with far less page time. Honestly, it can be difficult to keep that third level of characters straight, especially as so much of their importance is dependent on their social role, which House they are part of, how that House interacts with other Houses or what that House’s role is in the city’s governance, but one can glide along pretty well with a fuzzy notion and can also, if feeling the need for a more concrete sense of character, flip to the extensive Dramatis Personae at the beginning.

The plot is twisty and turning and filled with schemes and schemers, schemes within schemes, secret identities, betrayals and seeming betrayals, true revelations and false revelations, misconstrued motivations, changes of heart, and more. Some may admittedly find it a bit much, but I quite enjoyed its rich complexity. Even better, it took some turns I hadn’t expected, which doesn’t happen very often anymore. The plot raises the stakes somewhat from the first book (I won’t say how so as to avoid spoilers), and also sharpens some of the themes as, for instance, the oppression of the Vraszenians becomes more overt, more violent, more systematic, and more government-sponsored (which also places Serrado in an even more untenable situation).

M.A. Carrick

M.A. Carrick

The authors also show a good understanding here of when to let certain plot points drop or shift onto a new track. In Mask of Mirrors, for instance, as much as I enjoyed the book, I felt the “Who is the Rook?” mystery went on too long (both for the reader and for the characters). Here in The Liar’s Knot, the figuring-out-who-is-under-the-mask/hood plot threads go only as long as they should.

In a somewhat similar vein, that also holds true for all the secrets, hidden schemes, and misunderstandings. Too often (really, way too often), that sort of complicated plotting gets drawn out in painfully contrived fashion, with characters either not having conversations you know they would be having or else being far more oblivious than they are painted in any other aspect of the story. Here, those hidden nooks and crannies drive the first half of the book, then, gasp, characters actually talk, and the book is driven by other equally as compelling storylines (well, mostly — more on that later) as masks come off and lies unravel or are owned up to.

Meanwhile, the characters remain a strong point in book two, with all the main characters — Ren, Serrado, Vargo — painted in richly complex fashion, with past histories that continue to haunt them and drive their current behavior and thinking. That said, they also grow and change thanks to the events first of book one and here in The Liar’s Knot. Strengthening the characterization even more is how their relations to one another shift dependent on various revelations and actions, something that not only deepens their characters but also often adds a welcome bit of humor to the book. The secondary characters don’t fare quite so well, they’re given a bit of a short shrift, but still they get their own storylines and their own movement and growth, particularly Ren’s sister Tess, her House sister Giuna, and Vargo’s spider Peabody (yes, you read that right).

The book does feel a bit overlong as compared to Mask of Mirrors. Part of the reason I think is that the first book offered up more off a consistent and pervasive sense of tension and mystery as the reader grew ever more nervous over Ren getting caught (and there were many, many opportunities for that to happen) and, to some extent, remained puzzled by the mystery of the Rook’s identity. Here, we know who the Rook is, and the other secrets, as noted above, get revealed part way through rather than at the end. What is left, then, is the mystery cult plot, which I’d argue is  the weakest element of The Liar’s Knot: abstract, scattered, and disconnected, involving somewhat incompetent adherents and led by thinly characterized villains, all leading to a somewhat overly familiar goal and a more-than-somewhat anti-climactic resolution. Luckily, if it’s the weakest element of the novel, it’s also one that gets very little page time, so even readers who agree with my assessment won’t find it mars the reading experience much at all.

That resolution and what leads up to it is based in a deepening world-building, particularly a deeper understanding of the city’s past, and it leaves a good number of questions to be answered in book three of ROOK & ROSE. Based on the first two novels, I have no doubt that readers will be eagerly impatient for that final book.

Published in December 2021. TRUST IS THE THREAD THAT BINDS. AND THE ROPE THAT HANGS. In Nadežra, peace is as tenuous as a single thread. The ruthless House Indestor has been destroyed, but darkness still weaves through the city’s filthy alleys and jewel-bright gardens, seen by those who know where to look. Derossi Vargo has always known. He has sacrificed more than anyone imagines to carve himself a position of power and influence among the nobility, hiding a will of steel behind a velvet smile. He’ll be damned if he lets anyone threaten what he’s built. Grey Serrado knows all too well. Bent under the yoke of too many burdens, he fights to protect the city’s most vulnerable. Sooner or later, that fight will demand more than he can give. And Ren, daughter of no clan, knows best of all. Caught in a knot of lies, torn between her heritage and her aristocratic masquerade, she relies on her gift for reading pattern to survive. And it shows her the web of darkness that traps her city. But all three have yet to discover just how far that web stretches. And in the end, it will take more than wits and knives to cut themselves free.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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