Genre: Fantasy — Steampunkesque
Series: The Risen Kingdoms #1
Publisher: Tor Books (August 29, 2017)
Length: 384 pages
My Rating: 3 stars
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is crisply written, cleverly plotted, and highly imaginative; a fantasy which succeeds in combining elements from different speculative fiction genres into an entertaining opening to The Risen Kingdoms series.
The tale begins with dashing Musketeer Jean-Claude racing against time to arrive at the birth of the girl who will become the center of his life: Isabelle. This offspring of royal, bloodshadow magicians nearly killed after birth due to a deformed hand. Only Jean-Claude’s timely intervention saving her and thereby creating their strong bond.
Skip forward two decades, Isabelle is a young woman who has grown up being verbally abused and mocked by her father due to her lack of magical powers. This mistreatment culminating in the youth’s best friend Marie being assaulted by her father, transformed into a “bloodshadow” who is not alive but certainly not dead either; this hollowed out ghost of Marie acting as a reminder of Isabelle’s failure to find her magical power. But, our determined princess has found ways to survive and flourish, secretly studying and excelling at science and mathematics (Both subjects forbidden to women.), even going so far as to publish treatises under a male name. The only person who knows of her successes Jean-Claude; this musketeer pretending to be a drunk so as to subtly watch over his beloved Isabelle, even as he aids her in plotting an escape from her father’s household.
Circumstances take an unexpected turn, however, when a messenger arrives from the Kingdom of Aragoth. Prince Julio of that kingdom asking for Isabelle’s hand in marriage. The messenger being honest with Isabelle that this is a political arrangement, where the Prince must marry a woman of a house blessed with magic and she is the only suitable candidate. This future as the future Queen of Aragoth allowing her escape from her present situation but also sure to be filled with political machinations, courtly intrigue, and unlooked for deadly surprises!
What sets An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors apart from other recent fantasy offerings is the refreshing world building. Airships. Floating islands. Musketeers. Gunpowder. Magic. Clockwork cyborgs. Curtis Craddock incorporating these elements (and many more) into this world, creating a very unique setting which demands readers’ full attention, while also threatening to overwhelm them with the massive amount of information. Yet somehow, someway, the author never goes too far with his explorations of the setting, immersing his readers fully yet never submerging them completely.
As for the characters, they are what I would call standard with a twist. Standard in that Isabelle is the usual princess who is gifted yet ignored, abused yet determined, held back yet destined for greater things. And, Jean-Claude is the middle aged protector, who loves his ward as a daughter, and is willing to go through hell itself to see her safe, secure, and happy. All of which means readers have encountered these two archetypes before in other stories, but Mr. Craddock does add his own unique take on both with Isabelle actually showing how competent she is instead of just telling everyone and Jean-Claude behaving like a middle-aged musketeer would, not able to fight, run, or do anything like he once did.
The narrative itself starts off fairly slow, but the pacing does steadily pick up speed once Isabelle makes her choice regarding the marriage proposal. Villains rear their heads. Politics take center stage. And Isabelle and Jean-Claude must find a way – difficult as it may be – to survive the growing cataclysm in which they are embroiled.
The only criticism I can level at this novel is that it is a two character show: Isabelle and Jean-Claude. If you love them, then you will love the book. If you don’t like them, then the unique world building and exciting plot will not save the day here. I say that because this is truly an emotional journey about these people and their bond, not an action-adventure or epic fantasy which happens to focus in on a character or two.
Beautiful, compelling, and emotional, Curtis Craddock has crafted a unique fantasy with An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, one which will delight many fantasy fans. No, it didn’t inspire me as it has so many other reviewers, but even I can acknowledge its unique creativity, pulse-pounding excitement, and delightful humor. Certainly, this is a novel lovers of strong female leads should immediately go pick up.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.