by M.A. Carrick
Series: Rook & Rose #1
Publication Date: January 19, 2021
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
The Mask of Mirrors is the unmissable start to the Rook & Rose trilogy, a dazzling and darkly magical fantasy adventure by Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, writing together as M. A. Carrick.
Fortune favors the bold. Magic favors the liars.
Ren is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadežra with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house, securing her fortune and her sister's future.
But as she's drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as nightmare magic begins to weave its way through the City of Dreams, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled…with Ren at their heart.
Wow, this book is a ride. It’s a twisty political fantasy with an emphasis on found family and origins, and while it takes a bit to get there, the journey is very enjoyable.
“My grandfather—yours too, I suppose—he used to say, revenge will make you whole. The way Grey’s been behaving… I’m afraid it will break him.”
It didn’t break me, she wanted to say. But that wasn’t entirely true. Coming back to Lacewater made that all too clear.”
House Traementis – Donaia and her children Leato and Giuna – are nearing financial ruin, and the last thing they expect is the appearance of Renata Viraudax, Donaia’s previously unknown niece. Renata’s stated purpose is to reconcile the break between her mother and Donaia, but that’s not quite true. Renata is actually Ren, a Nadežran river rat who hopes to con her way into the family in order to secure financial security for herself and her sister, Tess. But she’s not prepared for the murky quagmire of Nadežran politics, inimical magic, and the echoes of her past that keep threatening to come to light.
“I have my compass, my edge, my chalk, myself. I need nothing more to know the cosmos.”
You definitely can’t accuse this book of info dumping. In fact, besides the excruciatingly slow pace, that would have to be my biggest complaint. I love the challenge of being immersed in worldbuilding and forced to figure out what’s going on, but this strained my limits. Nadežra is a conquered city, meaning there’s two separate naming styles, religions, and magic systems to contend with – the Liganti conquerors, and the Vraszenians, who still trace their heritage back to their clans. You can’t be, “OMG, Ren, that’s so Sestian!” because honestly I have no idea what a Sestian would do. There’s also a plethora of characters, all with multiple names or titles. Once I got the hang of it, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the worldbuilding and the tensions between the two different cultures. While I found the Liganti numinatria magic system interesting, my personal favorite was the Vraszenian pattern deck, loosely based on tarot cards. Ren has a special affinity for reading the deck, thanks to her mother, and it becomes an important plot point as the book goes on. No matter what she does, Ren can’t seem to escape her roots.
“Ren had limits. Vargo, it seemed, did not. It chilled her a little, but also made for an odd sense of camaraderie; they were not so different, the two of them.”
The story is told from multiple POVs, though the main characters are Ren; Grey, a Vraszenian captain in the Vigil mourning the death of his brother; and Vargo, a rich crimelord attempting to come clean. Ren and Grey were my two favorites, though Vargo provided a nice foil for Ren. Ren has two rules for her cons – she’ll go as far as it takes, but no killing and no whoring. Vargo, on the other hand… There’s also the Rook, a shadowy vigilante folk hero figure who Ren encounters soon after she arrives back in Nadežra. Ren soon finds herself trying to worm her way into the Traementis’ good graces while being distracted by the identity of the Rook, forming and discarding multiple guesses. There’s also Tess, Ren’s sworn sister, who’s absolute magic with sewing and embroidery, and is masquerading as Ren’s maid. And that’s not even counting the Traementis family! None of the characters are what they appear on the surface – or what Ren initially categorizes them as – and sometimes good-seeming characters make bad choices for all the wrong reasons. I especially felt for Grey and his attempts to navigate a corrupt police force full of nepotism and disregard for Vraszenian customs while being denigrated by the same citizens for selling out.
While the pacing is slow, it did add a sort of tension and immersion to the book. The ending was exquisite, and I absolutely cannot wait for the next book in the series in hopes of having some of my lingering questions answered. Overall, an easy 4.5 stars from me.