Book Review: The Mask Of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick Is A Dazzling Start To A New Fantasy Trilogy
Welcome to a new year of book reviews. 2020 was a great year for genre fiction, and 2021 is shaping up to be even better. For our first review of 2020, we are taking a look at the new novel by M.A. Carrick – The Mask of Mirrors. M.A. Carrick is a pseudonym for two authors who are writing together for the first time. Maire Brennan and Alyc Helms team up to create an unforgettable story of power, corruption, and the fight against injustice in the City of Dreams. This is the first novel in the new Rook & Rose trilogy.
Image via Orbit Books
The novel is set in a glittering world of noble houses competing for power, and a dark underbelly of poverty and crime. Nightmares stalk the streets, stealing away children who return unable to sleep and die shortly after. In the midst of this, a young woman named Ren returns to her home city. She aims to infiltrate one of the noble houses, and gain the wealth she feels that she is owed. As Ren straddles the line between noblewoman and con artist, between magic and illusion, she struggles with her own identity and the brittle facades of all those around her.
The Mask of Mirrors Builds A Magical World Full of Beauty and Deception
There is excellent worldbuilding in The Mask of Mirrors that makes it stand out above the pack. The City of Dreams is a fully realized place, with an ensemble cast of characters that all get a moment to shine. The authors do a great job of building a government and caste system that is similar enough to the our world to feel realistic, while still being utterly fantastical.
Our main protagonist of Ren is an excellent character. She is clever, intelligent, and inherently kind even though she has ulterior motives. Working as a con artist to infiltrate the noble Traementis House, Ren soon discovers that the House has fallen from grace and is no longer wealthy. Ren also discovers that it is harder to con the members of the Traementis family than she expected as she starts to build meaningful relationships with them that make her job much more difficult. Ren is a flawed character, with selfish tendencies and a limited world-view. But her flaws make her relatable, rather than frustrating.
Who Is The Rook In The Mask of Mirrors?
The Gray Fox… or The Rook? | Image via Bethesda
Also featuring prominently in The Mask of Mirrors are several male protagonists who all seem to be a likely candidate for the true individual behind the mask of the Rook. The figure of the Rook is legendary in the city, a superhero-esque figure who fights crime and corruption while protecting the poor and most vulnerable.
Some might compare the Rook to Robin Hood. But I found more similarities with the character of the Gray Fox from the Elder Scrolls games. An individual with a magical cowl that prevents anyone from discerning their identity? Sounds like the Gray Fox to me. It is worth noting that authors Brennan and Helm are both avid gamers, so this might be an intentional homage.
Throughout the book, Ren encounters the Rook several times. Eventually they begin to work together, and all the while she is trying to figure out who is beneath the magical mask. Over the course of the story, she has several suspects who may also be potential love interests.
Everyone Wears A Mask To Hide Their True Selves
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First there is the heir to the Traementis House, Leato. A charming and fundamentally kind individual, he is the first to welcome Ren (in her disguise as Renata) to the family. Leato takes Ren under his wing and helps guide her through the world of nobility. He is a complex character, who espouses political viewpoints that many of his class disagree with. Leato also has a strong friendship with a character from the lower classes that marks him as unique among the nobility.
Grey Serrado is another candidate for the role of the Rook. He is a police officer (or a member of the Vigil as the law enforcement is called). Serrado rose up from poverty to join the Vigil, and is viewed by members of his own community as a traitor for doing so. He comes from the original inhabitants of the city – the Vraszenians – who are routinely arrested, beaten, and oppressed by the ruling classes above them. The Vigil is the fist of the nobility that crushes the poor. But Serrado believes in truth and justice, even when no one around him seems concerned with seeing it done.
A Rook On A Branch | Photo by Łukasz Rawa on Unsplash
And then there is Derossi Vargo, a former crime boss who has worked his way up the ranks of wealth in the city to become something resembling nobility. Vargo is charming and handsome, with dark secrets lurking beneath the surface. He charms Ren immediately, and the two of them work together for mutual benefit. But there are more mysteries to the character of Vargo than the book provides answers for. Who is the voice in his head, that can seemingly see events around the city that Vargo cannot? Where did Vargo learn to use powerful magic, the type that is typically reserved for nobility? What are his goals and motivations? Even though we get POV chapters from this character, he remains a mystery to be explored in further volumes of the trilogy.
Complex Female Characters Abound In The Mask of Mirrors
I would be remiss if I spent all that time talking about the men of this book, without mentioning the women. Because this story is overflowing with great female characters. First up are the ladies of House Traementis. The matriarch Donaia is steely and strong, keeping her family together through sheer force of will after her late husband squandered much of their fortune. She has her doubts about Ren’s intentions from the beginning, proving that she is intelligent, observant, and worldly. She will do whatever she must to protect her family, and her good name.
Alongside Donaia is Leato’s younger sister Giuna. A bit naive and inexperienced, she immediately forms an attachment to Ren. Over the course of the story, Giuna has remarkable character growth that sees her transform from a timid young woman to a force of nature akin to her mother. She is one of the kindest characters in the story. But she is also the one with the most to learn about the world around her.
The Importance of Found Families
Then there is Tess, the seamstress who works magic on Ren’s beautiful dresses. Tess is Ren’s best friend, and chosen sister. The two of them grew up together as members of a child gang, and together they escaped the evil old woman who sought to control them. These two characters have been through fire together and it shows in their deep bond and implicit trust.
There is a theme of ‘found family’ that recurs throughout the book. Ren lost her mother when she was young, and never knew her father. So all of the family she has found are limited to those who know who she truly is, like Tess. But when the Traementis family starts to welcome her as one of their own, she learns to expand her definition of what a found family looks like.
Reading The Pattern
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This beautiful world that M.A. Carrick has built is not without its flaws however. The world itself feels real and vital. However, the magical systems in the book can be a bit confusing. There is a type of magic that can be ‘imbued’ which is easy enough to understand in the magical makeup that Ren uses to disguise her appearance. Then there is Ren’s inherent magical ability to read patterns in cards, much like Tarot.
The book explains the magic of Pattern reading pretty well, giving solid examples of how it is treated in the world much like Tarot readers of our own world. Most readers are considered to be fakes, just telling clients what they want to hear for a couple of coins. But a rare few have the true ability to read the Pattern in the cards and gain insight into what will happen in the future. Ren has this ability, and was trained well by her mother to read the Pattern. The inclusion of this fantasy version of Tarot is well done, easy to understand, and makes for some compelling symbolism throughout the book.
Flawed Magical Systems Need More Work
Photo by Viva Luna Studios via Unsplash
What was not as easy to understand is the magic based on sacred geometry that recurs throughout the book. Magic-users create large sigils using either themselves as focal points (very dangerous) or using the power of “Lumen.” It took me the entire book to realize that Lumen is supposed to be a God in this world, and that this magic draws directly from divine power. I found this magical system to be fascinating, but it needed a bit more work to be fully comprehensible.
Another magical aspect of the book that needed some more explanation was the dream and nightmare scenarios of the story. Early in the book, children go missing and reappear unable to sleep. They all tend to die a few days later. This subplot doesn’t tie much into the larger story, until suddenly a magical occurrence throws several of the main characters into a nightmare. I found this section of the book to be highly confusing, and that detracted from the emotional stakes involved.
A Solid First Novel Of A Fantasy Trilogy
But as a first novel in a new fantasy trilogy, The Mask of Mirrors does its job very well. It sets up a compelling fantasy world, with complex characters. It delves into the themes of identity, and class politics very well. The real-world parallels are obvious when it comes to the racial tension (particularly with the law enforcement). But the authors handle this subject with sensitivity and care. There is something for everyone to enjoy in this novel: an immersive fantasy world; glittering balls, duels, dashing rogues, and intricate magical work. With other trilogies, like the Power Mage series being selected for adaptation, we suspect this series may soon find life in another medium.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.