Review: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock

Reviewed by Ronelle

Being born with an obvious physical deformity and no magic in a world that fears the former and looks down upon the latter, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs should have been given to the sky at birth. Instead, the quick-thinking and clever maneuvering of the musketeer Jean-Claude spared her life. Underestimated by her family and her kingdom, she is hidden away and nearly forgotten…

…until the day a marriage proposal to the second son of a dying king in an empire on the verge of civil war is laid at her feet.

Isabelle grabs onto the promise inherent in such an unexpected escape from her family, but she soon learns she is not the first. In fact, the last two women betrothed to this prince were murdered, and a sorcerer-assassin is bent on making Isabelle the third. Isabelle and Jean-Claude quickly find themselves ensnared in a web of prophecy, intrigue, betrayal, and madness where everyone wears masks of glamour and lies. It’s up to Isabelle to unravel the lies of her enemies and discovers a truth more perilous than any deception…and the clock is ticking.

***

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was a refreshingly unpredictable surprise. I’ve only recently strayed into the genres of steampunk and gaslamp, but have decided I love them and this was no exception. The setting—a fantastical version of colonial-era Europe—was unique, the characters were engaging, and there were several plot twists I never saw coming. While it isn’t a romance, there seems to be the potential for one to develop in book 2…which, sadly, doesn’t come out until 2019.

For me, at least, everything about this book was unique and, honestly, more than a little surprising. As someone with a disability myself, I was able to relate to some of Isabelle’s struggles (though no one has ever called me the Breaker’s get and tried to kill me because of it, thankfully). I loved that, while her deformed hand was what defined her to others, Isabelle didn’t let it hinder her growth. Despite her awful family, lonely upbringing, and the status of women in her society, she was smart, loyal, and honorable, with no qualms about pursuing the intellectual subjects that were supposed to be forbidden to her. (She had to be sneaky and creative about the latter, and it paid off more than once.) The fate of entire kingdom hinged on her decisions and her ability to strategize, solve puzzles, and see around corners, yet she remained vulnerably human to the reader. The best examples presented themselves in her love for Marie and Jean-Claude—two people totally discounted by everyone else—as well as her understanding/compassionate treatment of those like Xaviera. Isabelle was an all-around fascinating character, and it was easy to get sucked into her story. The secondary characters played their roles well, without overshadowing each other or being superfluous distractions.

I have to say, the plot and setting were just as imaginative and vivid as the characters. While anyone even a little familiar with history will recognize the major European players in Mr. Craddock’s kingdoms, he gave them a fresh face with the introduction of skylands, skyships, magic, and alchemy. It was pretty clear the mechanics of travel, the dynamics of inter-realm power struggles, and the workings of each bloodline’s powers were well thought-out. The various players didn’t possess your run-of-the-mill magic, either; things like mirror-walking, blood shadows, and glamour-weaving were prevalent, and I found all of them creepy and sinister to one extent or another. There were also layers upon layers of betrayal, intrigue, and string-pulling going on in the background, but it was all presented in a fast-paced, interesting way. Never once did the story get bogged down or overloaded with technicalities or backstories. And while I’m usually pretty good at predicting where a story is going, who the bad guy is, etc., I was surprised more than once.

I ended up listening to more than half of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors on audio (I was gifted a .mobi copy, but I haven’t had much time to sit and read lately), and Erin Bennett was a fabulous choice for narrator. She voiced the characters perfectly, without dramatizing them or using hokey tones/accents. Her pace and level of emotion were spot-on, and I would definitely recommend the audio version to anyone, as Ms. Bennett brought the story a level of life and color I would have found lacking in the print alone.

Bottom line: So, so good! If you’re a fan of intrigue and the genre of steampunk and are looking for something unique yet somehow familiar in a dream-sequence kind of way, I can’t recommend this book enough.

Rating: A+

Click to purchase: Amazon

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors
by Curtis Craddock
Release Date: August 29, 2017
Publisher: Tor

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