As a reader, it’s rare for me to find a book that has nearly every trope I love. The Mask of Mirrors (2021), Book One of M.A. Carrick’s ROOK AND ROSE series, manages just that. Reading the Advance Reader Copy of this book was like nibbling my way through a box of gourmet chocolates curated just for Reader Me. A large box of gourmet chocolates.
And what are those favorite tropes? Well, con artists, secret identities, false identities, masked outlaws who fight for the common people, dangerously suave criminals, sword fights, dramas of manners, verbal duels, physical duels, intriguing magic, family secrets, cool clothes, masks of course, and, yes, chocolate. I was going to say, “there were no magic books,” but I’m revising that — there are divination cards that function much the way a good magical book does.
And the themes? The story deals with social injustice, corruption, and abuse of power in an occupied city, with clashing cultures, with identity (see the title), and with issues of family.
This fairly long, complex book unfolds via the points of view of various characters, including:
Ren. A beautiful young con artist, Ren assumes the persona of an imaginary Liganti daughter in order to hitch her fortunes to the Traementis family. Ren’s birth name is Arenza Lenskaya and she is Vraszenian, an ethnicity controlled and looked down on by the Liganti conquerors. Ren frisks exposure not only from the nobility, but from enemies in her own past as she returns to the city of her birth.
Donnaia Traementis. The matriarch of a Liganti noble family that is dwindling in numbers, wealth and influence, Donnaia tries to fend of the predatory interest of the more powerful Indestor clan. The arrival of a so-called niece, Renata, who she never knew existed, poses more trouble for the impoverished family… but also an opportunity, and a way for Donnaia to protect her children. Maybe.
Derossi Vargo. Vargo is a street criminal who has worked his way up. He has his sights set on a place in the nobility, a step that is virtually impossible. Vargo has abilities his own gang doesn’t even know about, and he really has two agendas — his own and that of a powerful other. Helping the young Traementis cousin Renata suits his purposes, for now.
Giuna Traementis. Youngest child of Donnaia, Giuna has lived a sheltered life, which doesn’t stop her from exercising her intelligence and her keen perceptions.
Grey Serrado. Born Vraszenian, Grey has broken ties with the Vraszenian community and joined the police force, known as the Vigil. He believed he could provide justice for the Vraszenians from there, but even at the rank of captain, the Liganti control and corruption hamper him. More than anything, Grey needs to discover who caused the explosion that killed his beloved older brother. At the moment, though, the abduction of street children and the introduction of a terrifying fatal disease that causes sleeplessness demand his attention.
A character we meet very early is the Rook, an almost-mystical hooded, sword-wielding outlaw who exacts justice from nobles who transgress. Treated as a criminal by the noble houses and by the city’s gentry class, he is admired by the Vraszenians. We meet both the patriarch and the scion of the vicious Indestor clan, who are suitably hateful and hate-able. But there is more going on in the delta city of Nadezra, more than corruption and social jockeying, more than exploitation of the Vraszenians, and soon Ren is at the heart of it.
Carrick’s scene setting and landscaping of the city, built on a number of islands in the delta of a river, is both exact and lush. Interiors and exteriors, whether it’s an outdoor market comprised of skiffs, a decadent ballroom at a social event, a temple or a catacomb, tickle all the senses. The dialogue is as tightly tuned as a guitar string; the drawing room conversations, not surprisingly, are often the most suspenseful and intense. And the fashion! One of two writers who form the writing team of M.A. Carrick (Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms) loves fashion and they let that love off the leash here. The exquisite attention to wardrobe could read as self-indulgent, but in this story, fashion matters among the nobility. It really matters, and one of Ren’s challenges is managing to keep up with the need to be a fashion trendsetter, when she has no money.
Reader Me was thrilled to settle down with The Mask of Mirrors. How did Writer Me feel?
House Traementis: A somewhat fallen House desperately trying to stave off utter collapse. Currently, the House consists of a sternly strong matriarch (Donnaia), her charmingly wastrel son Leato, and her young teen daughter Giuna, whom both Leato and Donnaia have tried to protect from the harsher realities of their situation and the larger political world.
Grey Serrado: Captain of the Vigil, the Nadezra police force, and best friend of Leato Traementi. As a native Vraszenian working for the hated Liganti, Serrado is stuck between two worlds, a fraught position recently made worse by the recent killing of his brother.
Derossi Vargo: an up-and-coming crime lord who, like Al Pacino in the Godfather films, is seeking to go “legit” by joining the nobility.
The Rook: sort of a nationalistic Batman. For 200 years, the hooded swordsman has been protecting the Vraszenians and taking on the Liganti, though most assume they are not the same person over the two centuries, but a role handed down old Rook to new Rook.
Lesser albeit important characters include the head of a rival House to Traementis and his male heir, Varga’s bodyguard Sedge, a young street child, and an astrologer.
Because The Mask of Mirrors is a mix of con games (multiple ones), heists, secret identities, revenge plots, murder mysteries, political intrigue, magical enigmas, and schemes within schemes within schemes, I’m not going to into a detailed plot summary. I’ll just note a few general aspects.
One is that it’s a dense, attention-requiring plot involving a lot of characters, a lot of names (not just the main characters), and as noted, a lot of schemes. The plot, in other words, is full of plotting. This probably isn’t, therefore, a novel to read while binging Schitt’s Creek. I enjoyed the complexity of the story, though at times I think we’re given more information than we need that unnecessarily makes it more complicated. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t need all the clothing descriptions, but given how important appearance is in this society I’ll somewhat grudgingly cede its relevance (though appearance is important in any noble society and not all give us the same level of painstaking detail — again, MMV)
The authors do an excellent job of creating tension/suspense in a variety of ways and settings, whether via a street riot, a chase scene, an abduction, a duel, or through more “mannered” but no less vicious scenes that takes place in a more domestic setting: a jewelry store, a wedding party, the parlor or study of one of the houses.
The identity of the Rook is a big question throughout The Mask of Mirrors, which I think is problematic. Secret identities work in the real world because the choices of who lies underneath the identity are nearly endless. Batman could be any of millions living in Gotham. But in a novel, we have basically two options: a relatively major character or somebody we haven’t or barely met. The latter is a bit of a cheat (sort of like a mystery writer introducing the murderer for the first time on the last page), so it’s almost always going to be the former. And therein lies the problem because now, rather than potentially being millions, or even dozens, we’re down to a literal handful. Which forces the author into playing all sorts of games while also making the characters at least a little oblivious. For instance, all the possibilities have to either be coincidentally the exact same height and body type, or the author has to arbitrarily withhold that information and pretend the characters never notice those qualities, even as they’re hyper-alert to other details, such as the piping on a jacket or a curl of hair. And even with these games, because the options are so few, the reader still has a good chance of figuring it out. Now, admittedly, how one reacts to this is somewhat dependent on one’s personality. Personally, I find it frustrating in the, “Look, I know who it is, you should know I know who it is by now, so can we drop the whole ‘who is it, who is it’ routine for the next few hundred pages?” Your mileage may vary.
Finally, with regard to plot, the novel does a nice job of bringing most of the main questions and conflicts to resolutions, while leaving some up in the air and also opening up a number of other intriguing concerns and mysteries. Which, as noted in the intro above, is exactly what you want a first book to do.
As for characters, The Mask of Mirrors is a perfect example of taking familiar character types and imbuing them with a sense of unique personality and rich detail such that they feel like actual people rather than the types they are. Ren, Vargo, Serrado, etc. are all complex, multi-faceted characters, within their own selves and also because they are often forced into playing a role, either because they’re literally acting (as with Ren and Tess’ con) or because they need to present different faces in different situations/company, much as well do on a regular basis. Varga, for instance, has one face for his street gang and another for when he moves in more noble company, while Serrado has a form (and content) of speech amongst his Liganti comrades on the Vigil and another when he interacts with his own people. These sort of “code-switching” scenes are often some of the most revealing and also most tense, particularly when the stress of the scene makes it more likely someone might slip, such as how Ren might drop into her street slang if faced with a triggering situation. I also enjoyed just how “grey” many of the characters are, as well as how that greyness, combined with never being quite sure just how transactional the relationships are, means one is never always fully confident where they (the reader) stands with them or how they stand (or will stand) to one another once they get new information and/or new motivations or opportunities.
The world-building is solidly constructed. Thanks to Ren’s con game of playing a cousin from a different land (her “mother” had left Nadezra years ago and had no contact since), the authors get to play the “You know, Bob …” card frequently because those doing the explaining don’t realize Bob actually does know. It’s a clever way of straightforwardly info-dumping details of history, culture, city layout, religion, and magical systems (patterning: a sort of Tarot card power, inscribing — channeling energy through precisely drawn figures, and imbuing — giving certain qualities to objects) without it feeling clumsy. That said, beyond the magic and politics (and clothing), I wouldn’t call it a deeply detailed world.
The Mask of Mirrors is a long book, and now and then it may feel its length, but I’m glad the authors chose to take their time in telling this tale, as it allowed for the slow revelation of character as well as the slow maturation (or shifting) of relationships. I’d expect some would argue for it losing one or two hundred pages, but I think it earned its length. The authors have woven a rich tapestry of plot and character, and I’m hoping not to have to wait too long to see the rest of it unfold.