REVIEW: The Ebon Mask by Richard Lee Byers

The Ebon Mask by Richard Lee Byers is a novel set in the Wraith: The Oblivion gameline. I was never a fan of Wraith while it was being printed but am reasonably familiar with the world. You play as one of the truly dead, a spirit who has found themselves in the Underworld, and must figure out how to deal with the complicated relationship between this world (called the Skinlands) and the politics of the great beyond.

The Ebon MaskThe Ebon Mask, book one of the Dark Kingdoms Trilogy, is divided between living and dead protagonists. On one hand, there is James Graham AKA the Maquis of Montrose, who is a former Protestant rebel against King Charles I. Now a servant of the Smiling Lord, he spends his days hunting down and attempting to destroy Heretics. He sold his soul long ago because he doesn’t believe there’s anything worth pursuing with his soul other than power. Montrose also still pines for the woman who betrayed him to death in life, Louise, who has discovered religion post-mortem and become a priestess of the Norse Gods.

On the living side of things, Frank Bellamy is an FBI agent that is investigating a series of brutal murders of clergymen throughout the American South. “The Atheist” serial killer is obviously something supernatural but Bellamy doesn’t know anything about such things. So much so that when he finally does find out something weird, he is warned off by both his psychologist as well as a mysterious branch of the FBI called the Special Affairs Division.

I really liked the characters in The Ebon Mask with both leads being strong enough that they could have handled the role of lead by themselves. Of the two, I think I prefer Frank a lot more than Montrose. Montrose is deliberately despicable and someone who is the worst sort of Hierarchy slaver. He’s worse than an overt sadist because he genuinely believes all the atrocities he’s doing are justified because the Hierarchy doesn’t offer what he views as a false sense of salvation.

Frank, by contrast, is the classic archetype of a cop who has a case he’s been put off and does his best to solve it anyway. He ends up in New Orleans, the perfect city for an occult investigation and meets a colorful cast of characters each attracted to the supernatural for their own reasons. There are members of the Arcanum, hippie New Age girls, and the leader of a gay night club who aspires to Awakening. All of them provide new and interesting twists to the puzzle that is who wants to cover up these murders and why.

If you’re not familiar with Wraith: The Oblivion, probably since it was the lowest selling of the World of Darkness gamelines, you should still be able to enjoy the setting as well as its characters. The universal themes of death and afterlife are ones that resonate through the pages. The Ebon Mask is only book one of a trilogy and ends on a cliffhanger, but I think it is worth continuing after finishing. Richard Lee Byers is a fantastic author, and this is a book trilogy that I think really “gets” the World of Darkness without going grimdark.

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CT Phipps

CT Phipps

C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He's the author of Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer's Star, Straight Outta Fangton, and The Supervillainy Saga. He is also a frequent contributor to Grimdark Magazine.