The closest parallel of M.A. Carrick’s (who are also known as the duo of Alyc Helms and Marie Brennan) debut novel, The Mask of Mirrors is probably The Lies of Locke Lamora. Both deal with thieves sporting a heart of gold and both have massive, shake-up events that happen midway through their narratives. But one notable different the former sports is perhaps, the sheer color and vibrancy of its setting.
If you had to describe the The Mask of Mirrors in a word, it’d be ‘subterfuge’, to the extent that an oft-repeated saying within the setting of the novel is ‘may you see the Face, not the Mask’. In the city of Nadežra—a fantastical Venice, which again is reminiscent of TLoLL—which was taken from its native Vraszenian occupants by the ruling Liganti elite, we witness events from the perspectives of three different characters, their Masks and eventually their Faces.
There’s Renata, a thief attempting to con down-on-their-luck House Treamentis, Grey is a police officer reluctantly upholding the law against his fellow Vraszenians, and lastly, Vargo the aspiring crime lord and germaphobe with a keen eye for fashion.
And of course, there’s the Rook—a mysterious, hooded sword-wielding crimefighter who sets himself against the elite. And make no mistake, he certainly delights in embarrassing them:
Sibiliat hadn’t moved to help Mezzan. He took a step toward the Rook, hands curled into fists. “That rapier was imbued by the swordsmith Vicadrius herself. There isn’t another like it in Nadežra!”
The Rook sheathed his blade. “Then by all means, go after it.”
Renata saw the move coming. So did the Rook; she suspected he’d invited it. When Mezzan charged, the Rook faded out of the way and applied boot to ass. The kick provided the extra momentum needed to send Mezzan flying over the rail and into the canal.
“Though I believe it landed on the other side of the bridge. You might want to check there,” the Rook called down over the laughter and cheers from the onlookers. He hopped onto the rail and bowed.
These characters underpin the story of The Mask of Mirrors, and each of them are compelling in their own right. Renata and Grey are incredibly likeable, and have I mentioned Vargo? Our third protagonist possesses a truly compelling aura. He’s ruthless, eccentric, and brimming with confident sexuality—but it’s the secrets and plots they keep withheld from each other that prove most compelling. The Mask of Mirrors delights in its sleight of hand, its constant card tricks of piling up secrets upon secrets that build tension in the most delicious of ways, and its story is all the stronger for it.
Atop this well of intrigue sits a vibrant exterior. M.A. Carrick know their fashion keenly and deeply, and it’s displayed with a good amount of the narrative dedicated to usually what Renata or Vargo wears, but it’s not just clothing that’s vibrant—Nadežra is a queernormative city, and it doesn’t shy away from reminding you that the most intriguing stories don’t always need to be dour and bleak when it comes to setting.
Even with the fluff and pomp of The Mask of Mirrors, it hasn’t shied away from alluding to real-world issues, however. Whether it’s in Grey’s conflicting stance as a police officer, or a subplot involving Vargo’s play for a prestigious water purifying charter. Details like those contribute to make Nadežra feel more substantial and real, more Face than Mask.
Overall, The Mask of Mirrors is a fantastic novel—it’s certainly launched itself into my list of favorites overnight. The characters are fun, the setting accents them wonderfully, and the writing is gripping, with barely a dull moment, whether it’s a duel, a discourse on outfits, or politicking. If you’re looking for fantasy with élan and a certain swashbuckling groove, look no further.