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: “The Gutter Prayer”

Book One of the Black Iron Legacy: The Gutter Prayer

By: Gareth Hanrahan

Audiobook: 16 hours 58 minutes

Narrated by: John Banks

Published: January 15, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark 

WARNING: This review contains some spoilers. You have been warned. 

…the thieves—the ghoul, the Stone Boy, the nomad girl…(Prologue).

            All readers have at least this one thing in common—so many books and very little time to read them all. With so many books—in all genres—being released to the acclaim of both critics and readers, there are moments when a reader does not know which book to read next. Also, there are times when a reader wants to read a book but has to find a way to read it alongside the other books they are reading. In this case, I wanted to read The Gutter Prayer—a grimdark fantasy debut novel by Gareth Hanrahan—which, I have heard nothing but positive things about the book. However, I didn’t have time to read my eBook copy, and I did not want to wait until “later” to read it. So, the only option I had left was the audiobook. I bought it and I prayed that the narration would be as good as the story, and I was not disappointed in either one! The Gutter Prayer is one of the most creative and most entertaining debut novels I’ve read in a while; and, listening to the audiobook gave me a new respect and outlook on narrators. 

            This novel contains several characters. There are 3 protagonists: Carillon Thay, or Cari, a young woman who lived a nomadic life before becoming a thief for the Guild; Rat, a ghoul who is considered to be of a young age amongst other ghouls; and, Spar, a lifelong member of the Thieves’ Guild, who is also a Stone Man, suffering from a disease that slowly petrifies people. When we first meet this trio, they are breaking into a building to steal some documents as appointed by Heinreil, the Guild’s leader. After the job goes awry, we meet: Jere: a thief-taker (a.k.a. bounty hunter) who has a borderline obsession with the trio; Professor Ongent and his son, Miren, scholars with their own baggage and piqued interest in Cari; Eladora Duttin, Cari’s cousin whom she has not seen since they were children; and, Aleena, a woman with unusual ties to Cari. This motley band of characters are about to become acquainted with each other whether or not they want to be. All of the characters are rounded and complex and have down-to-Earth concerns, secrets, and ambitions. At first, readers assume these characters are static and are expected to adhere to the tropes, but the complexity and the connection these characters have demonstrate how each of them develop throughout the novel. 

            The plot of The Gutter Prayer is extremely intriguing: 3 thieves are betrayed by their leader, and as they plot their revenge they uncover not only political conspiracies, but also an ongoing war amongst gods, mages, and alchemists. All the while, Cari, Rat and Spar are linked to this war whether or not they want to be. However, if they want a chance at vengeance, then they must stop Armageddon from happening. Of course, this is easier said than done, but they are not alone. The subplots are interconnected with the plot. First, there are Cari and Eladora. Most of their relatives were killed in a massacre, in which neither Cari, nor Eladora were present. Cari ran away from home and became a thief, and Eladora settled in Guerdon to distance herself from her religious zealot mother. Professor Ongent and Miren take interests in them, but Cari can’t shake the feeling that the Professor has ulterior motives. Next, Spar struggles with the disease that will kill him eventually. At the same time, he knows it’s time to fight Heinreil in order to become the Head of the Thieves’ Guild. This is one of two promises Spar makes to Cari; the second one involves getting back an amulet Heinreil took from Cari. Last, Rat, the ghoul who spends as much time underground as he does above it, is very knowledgeable about the ongoing war between the gods and all of the mages. What the others don’t know is that Rat and the other ghouls have a role to play in the war as well. All of these subplots are necessary for the plot to go at an appropriate rate. This is because, as the plot continues, readers learn the hows and the whys all of these characters remain motivated to stop the mages from bringing destruction to the world. 

            The narrative follows a chronological sequence of events that are told from multiple points-of-view. From the botched robbery to the motives of all of the characters, the readers learn everything that is happening and why from all of the locations the characters find themselves in. Usually, in narratives like these, it is difficult to determine which of the characters are reliable. However, due to each of the protagonists’ stream-of-consciousness—which include flashbacks of important moments in their lives—readers are able to follow the narrative easily. In other words, readers learn where each protagonist is coming from and are able to understand them a lot more. 

            The style Gareth Hanrahan uses is very interesting, and it brings out the grimdark aspect within the fantasy. The author created a world where ghouls are NOT the threat, but mages, saints, and wax figures are working to prompt Armageddon. In addition, the use of word choice and figurative language—especially when it comes to describing bells and medallions—clues readers in as to what they should pay attention to. The mood of The Gutter Prayer is preventing the coming of the end of the world and the lengths people go to either to invoke it, or to prevent it. No one survives the coming or the prevention of the end-of-the-world unscathed, so the mood here would be the tension of the dilemma. And, while the author did this unknowingly (I asked him about it on social media), a lot of the action occurs on “Desiderata Street.” Anyone who is familiar with the poem, Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, knows that it is a reminder to individuals to strive for high ideals and to respect others the way they want to be treated. This is the tone of the novel, and this “way of life,” is the philosophy (remember “Philosopher’s Street”?) which, is reflected in one of the protagonists. Yes, it sounds cliché, but the way this is used within the author’s style of writing doesn’t feel that way at all. 

            The appeal surrounding The Gutter Prayer have been beyond positive. While it’s obvious that grimdark fans will enjoy this book the most, this should NOT be missed by other fantasy fans and readers! This debut—yes, remember debut—novel is already considered to be one of the “Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books of 2019” by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Social media fandoms kept raving about this book to the point where I knew I had to find a way to read it. So, I bought the audiobook. The narrator, John Banks, was perfect for voicing this book. The way he used his voice to convey each character and to describe the setting the way he did matched the story perfectly. I felt that John Banks’ narration embellished the story. And, while I hope to read The Shadow Saint, the upcoming sequel to The Gutter Prayer (to be released on January 9, 2020), I wouldn’t mind if John Banks narrated that book and any other ones in the series as well. It did not feel like I was listening to 17 hours of a novel, it felt like I was there!

            The Gutter Prayer is a striking addition to the fantasy genre. It’s dark and twisted story will remind readers that fantasy is more than “knights in shining armor arriving to save the world.” The fact that it is a debut novel will leave fans craving for more from Gareth Hanrahan. If you’re a fan of fantasy and you want something both new and different, then look no further. 

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