Why You Need to Read: “The Mask of Mirrors”

Rook & Rose, #1: The Mask of Mirrors

By: M.A. Carrick                                                                    Audiobook: 23 hours 13 minutes

Published: January 21, 2021                                                   Narrated by: Nikki Massoud

Genre: Fantasy

            Still, she insisted that obsequiousness was part of the role, and no amount of correction from either Ren or Alta Renata could stamp it out. Sighing, Renata put in her earrings—formerly Letilia’s—while Tess retrieved ribbon, brushes, needle, and thread, and set to work, (2The Face of GoldIsla Prišta, Westbridge: Suilun 4).

            There is a young adult portal fantasy series titled Stravaganza by Mary Hoffman. Each book in the series follows an unhappy teen who stumbles upon a magic talisman, which transports them to a world that is similar to 11th century Italy. In that world these travelers find others like themselves, and they help them fight against a family which is similar to the infamous House Borgia. In that series, both magic and alchemy are studied and practiced by the characters in secret from their enemies. This series was a fun read and it had me wondering why a similar series didn’t exist (where I had access to it). While The Mask of Mirrors, the 1st book in the Rook & Rose trilogy—by M.A. Carrick is not a portal fantasy set in Renaissance Italy, I could not help but make comparisons throughout my reading of this book to the Stravaganza series. 

            There are 3 protagonists who mingle within their social circles consisting of other characters. The 1st protagonist is Arenza Lenskaya—a.k.a. “Ren”—who is a con artist and a thief. She has just returned to Nadežra with her sister, Tess, after being away for 5 years. Back then, Ren, Tess, and their brother, Sedge, were planning on leaving their knot—group of thieves bonded by blood and by magic—when their leader, Ondrakja, killed Sedge as punishment. Ren poisoned Ondrakja as payback, and then she and Tess fled the city. Now, the 2 young women have returned with a plan: infiltrate House Traementis—one of the noble houses—as the long-lost niece, Alta Renata Viraudax, in order to swindle away some of their fortune for themselves to live off from. Tess will play the role as Alta Renata’s handmaiden while Ren will play the role as a young noblewoman. Meanwhile, Era Donaia Traementis, the head of the House, is unsure what to make of the vagrant who may or may not be the daughter of her willful sister-in-law, Letilia Traementis. At the same time, her children, Leato—who is around Renata’s age—and Giuna, are excited to meet their “cousin,” especially since there are rumors that their House is cursed. Renata mingles with members of the other Houses so that she can claim her “position” faster. She befriends House Acrenix, she angers House Indestor, and meets up with Derossi Vargo—a known crime lord and businessman—who has a proposition for Renata and House Traementis. 

            The 2nd protagonist is Derossi Vargo—known simply as Vargo. It should be mentioned that Vargo’s dealings are as unknown as the crimes he has committed in the past. Thanks to his network of knots, Vargo knows what Renata seeks, and he is willing to assist her, for a price. One thing the denizens of Nadežra know about Vargo is his ability to perform numinatria—a form of magic based on geometry (and gods)—which he learned from an “unknown” individual. On the side, Vargo continues operating his “business.” However, after an attack at one of his locations, Vargo sends out his best men to investigate. This includes: Nikory, Pavlin Rainieri—who works in the Vigil, the police force—and, another who has ties to Renata and Tess. Strangely, Vargo cooperates with the Vigil with this case and “other” ones. 

            The 3rd protagonist is Captain Grey Serrado. He is one of the leaders of the Vigil, and he takes his job very seriously. He is willing to investigate the crimes on the streets of Nadežra so that trust can build up between the Vigil and the denizens, especially the poor. For example, when children start going missing only to return claiming they can’t sleep, Grey meets with Arkady Bones—the boss of the largest knot in Nadežra—and asks her for information about it. At the same time, he is investigating the explosion which cause his brother’s—Kolya’s—death; and, Era Traementis wants Grey to investigate Renata’s “identity.” Later on, when another attack occurs, Grey begins to wonder whether or not everything could be connected.

            All three protagonists find themselves involved in a conspiracy of politics and magic. Together with their friends and their allies, Ren, Vargo and Grey use their talents and their abilities to work towards their goals, and to save the city of Nadežra from destruction. The question all 3 are asking is: who is behind all of these crimes and why?

            There are 3 plots in this novel—1 per protagonist. Ren is conning her way into House Traementis as a long-lost relative of theirs. When she learns that helping them with their financial troubles can give her what she wants, she agrees to meet with Vargo in order to keep up the con. When her plans begins to overwhelm her, Ren transforms into Arenza and uses her pattern deck—similar to tarot cards—to read people’s spirits and relationships while learning about the ongoings on the streets. Unfortunately, when Alta Renata Viraudax becomes sought out by several individuals, Ren begins to wonder whether or not she is in over her head. Vargo is trying to move beyond his criminal status so he can be recognized as the businessman he has worked hard to become. However, someone is using his reputation in order to blame him for the death of Captain Serrado’s brother. Not to mention, his “mentor” keeps directing him in the direction he wants Vargo to go in. Grey has a lot on his mind; and, the cause of his brother’s death is at the forefront. Then, children start dying in the streets and it isn’t from hunger or violence. And, of course, the noble houses are fighting amongst themselves, again. Grey wonders why no one is taking the deaths of the street children more seriously, until the reason presents itself to him.

Out of all of the subplots, 2 garner the most connections to the plots throughout the narrative. The first subplot is the magic used by the Vraszenians. Some have power to use numinatria, some use astrology, and some use a pattern deck. To non-Vraszenians, they believe much of the “magic” is based on superstition. However, too many unusual ailments—including a new drug—starts to affect everyone to the point where everyone begins to ask, who is powerful enough to stop it. The second subplot surrounds the figure of The Rook, the infamous outlaw from legend who offers “justice” to whoever needs it the most—usually the poor and the orphaned. Yet, The Rook finds himself in a bad situation. On the night Captain Serrado’s brother was killed, several witnesses reported seeing The Rook at the building. But, there is one thing which doesn’t add up: The Rook does NOT kill. So, what happened that night? There is a lot going on within the narrative, but the plots and the subplots develop at an appropriate rate so the readers can keep track of everything that is happening to all of the characters. The subplots are essential for the plot developments within this story. 

The narrative is told in 3rd person limited from the points-of-view of Ren, Vargo and Grey. While each of the protagonists don’t know everything that is happening, the reader(s) know because they follow the events from their P.O.V.s and their streams-of-consciousness which are essential throughout the narrative. In addition, readers get a few passages from the P.O.V.s of some of the other characters, which allows for everyone’s thoughts and emotions to be known, which allows these characters to become more rounded. The sequence of the narrative can get confusing at times due to certain events being told and retold through someone else’s P.O.V., but this grants readers with the complete knowledge of everything that is happening at once. The memories, the flashbacks, and the visions are pivotal as well. The narratives are presented in a way that makes all of the characters reliable, and each one can be followed easily. 

The style M.A. Carrick—the joint pen name of both Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms—use for The Mask of Mirrors resembles an urban fantasy mystery where both magic users and con artists and vigilantes are involved. All of the characters know something bad is about to happen, and the protagonists are doing everything they can to find out who is behind it and to stop it. Not to mention, someone is using magic to harm children; but, whose magic is powerful enough to do such a thing? Both the magic system and the world-building transports the reader(s) to a fantasy world which will remind them of something from 19th century Italy (and maybe France?). An argument can be made here that both Ren and The Rook are homages to the fictional character, Arsène Lupin (think Persona 5), the gentleman thief and master of disguise created by French writer, Maurice Leblanc. The allusion to Leblanc’s series is obvious to those fans. Will one protagonist solve the mystery before the others, or will all 3 protagonists find a way to work together? The mood in this novel is jeopardy. Every single character is risking themselves in order to survive and to continue to make their way in the world. The tone in this novel is executing actions in order to do what needs to be done. Each protagonist finds themselves in scenarios where they must ask themselves whether or not their desires mean more than those of (several) others. 

The appeal for The Mask of Mirrors have been positive. A majority of the readers (so far) have given this book the highest praises. I would recommend this book to fans of the Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews, the Chimera trilogy by Cate Glass, and any fantasy series with expansive world-building set within an urban fantasy world (i.e. City of Lies, Nevernight). I listened to the audiobook edition of this book, which was narrated by Nikki Massoud. Her performance, her voicing of all of the characters, and her pronunciation of all of the nouns made it easy to distinguish one from another. Thanks to her performance, I was able to keep track of everything that was happening throughout the narrative. Yes, this is a dense book, but it has a fast pace and the buildup to the events towards the end of this book will leave readers craving to read the next book in the series, The Liar’s Knot, when it is released at the end of 2021.

The Mask of Mirrors is one of the most underrated fantasy books of the year. M.A. Carrick presents a blend of fantasy and mystery within a world complete with nobles, vigilantes, magic users and characters who are trying to learn about themselves as they survive the madness within their city. Do not be intimidated by the size and the narrative style of the book. I promise you will fall under its spell.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.75 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!