I received this book for free from the Author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock
Series: The Risen Kingdoms #1
Published by Tor Books on August 29 2017
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: As twisty and complex as Shakespeare, this story surprised me in every way possible. This is definitely one of 2017’s “must reads!”
When Curtis Craddock asked me if I’d like a copy of his debut to read and review, I didn’t know much about it at the time. But I’m ecstatic that I took a chance and said “yes.” There will be lots of gushing in this review, but I have to start it by saying that this is one of the most accomplished debut novels I’ve ever read. (Although according to Goodreads, it looks like he’s self-published a couple of books prior to this one, so technically this would be his traditionally published debut.) Not only has Craddock created a multi-layered and complex fantasy world, but he’s a damn good writer as well. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is the start of a trilogy, and I can honestly say I’ve never encountered a world quite like this before. If you love genre mash-ups, then you’ll love this heady combination of steampunk, court intrigue, and mystery, with a dash of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.
The story centers around two main characters: Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs, the abused daughter of a cruel magician, and Jean-Claude, a King’s Own Musketeer who has been sworn to protect Isabelle since she was born. The story begins with the unfortunate birth of Isabelle, who is nearly smothered by the attending midwife when she notices the baby’s deformed hand. But fate intervenes and Isabelle is saved.
Fast forward twenty years, Isabelle has grown up to be a strong and resourceful girl whose greatest passion is mathematics, a passion she must hide from the rest of the world. In addition to her horrible disfigurement, Isabelle lacks the family magic of a Sanguinaire, someone who uses their bloodshadow to control others, and so her father despises her. If not for her dearest friend Jean-Claude, and her secret studies of math and science, Isabelle’s life would be unbearable.
But one day an unexpected offer lands in her lap. An artifex named Kantelvar from the kingdom of Aragoth proposes that Isabelle marry Príncipe Julio de Aragoth and become a Blessed Queen. Isabelle is shocked by the offer, but she’s smart enough to see it as a way to escape her father’s household once and for all, and so she agrees to accompany Kantelvar to Aragoth, if nothing more than to meet her intended betrothed Julio.
When Isabelle and Jean-Claude finally arrive, they discover a seething undercurrent of political unrest, and more than one person seems to want the new Princess out of the way. Isabelle finds herself in the center of a diabolical plot that goes back centuries, and unless she can stop it, an all-encompassing war will surely break out.
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is one of the most surprising books I’ve read in quite some time. And by surprising, I mean that it continued to surprise me up to the end. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Craddock adds yet another layer to his story. I often use the term “multi-layered” when writing book reviews, but reading this book was literally like watching a garden of strange and beautiful flowers unfurl their petals. There are so many delightful world-building elements that I’d love to talk about, but I don’t want to spoil too much. I will mention a few of my favorites, however. First, there are airships in this book! In fact, in one of the opening chapters, Jean-Claude is on his way to see Isabelle on one such ship, and I loved the fact that he is a terrible sailor. He can’t find his “sea legs” and he’s sea sick for the entire journey (and I believe at one point there was vomit involved…) The world is made up of floating islands and that’s how people travel from one kingdom to another.
I also have to mention the magic system, because it was very cool. Isabelle’s family has the power of casting their “bloodshadows” in order to control and harm others. It was a terrifying type of magic, especially because someone very close to Isabelle suffers from this magic and becomes a “bloodhollow.” Even worse, magicians can enter the bodies of bloodhollows and use them to spy on their enemies. Each kingdom has its own type of magic, and in Aragoth that magic is called Glasswalking. Sorcerers are able to get from one place to another through mirrors, which sounds convenient, but it can also be dangerous. Hence, mirrors are usually a source of anxiety and are often covered up or scratched so that Glasswalkers can’t come through uninvited.
But although the world-building is pretty spectacular, it’s the characters in this story that really steal the show. I loved Isabelle for her curious mind and her ability to overcome so much hardship. All her life she’s been ridiculed because of her deformed hand, but instead of wallowing in pity she’s decided to educate herself. I love the fact that she hides mathematical equations in her paintings, and she’s even created a male nom de plume in order to write about math and science. At first I was a little taken aback that Isabelle was willing to marry a man she’d never met (and the reason for her to marry him is made very clear: the Príncipe’s last wife was unable to get pregnant), however that feeling didn’t last, and my respect for her continued to grow.
The musketeer Jean-Claude was by far my favorite character, though. He goes through some pretty brutal stuff during the course of the story, and Craddock pokes fun at his age (I imagine he must be in his 40s) and how he just can’t run as fast as he used to, etc. It made him the comic relief of the story, a sometimes bumbling older man who is still in charge of protecting his “ward” Isabelle. I have to admit in the beginning I thought this was going to end up being a romance between Jean-Claude and Isabelle, however, given their age difference, their relationship actually goes much deeper and ends up being very satisfying.
The story is chock-full of wonderful details, like the clockwork artifex who are a combination of human and machine, or the leviathans, flying creatures who soar among the floating islands. I feel as if the author has barely scratched the surface, and I’m hoping for lots more details in the next two books of the series.
Even though it’s not on Goodreads yet, Mr. Craddock was kind enough to mention that book two is called A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery, and that he’s already working on book three! (heart be still) This is a stunning beginning to a new trilogy and you’re going to want to get in on the ground floor. For readers who appreciate intricately detailed stories, you will not be disappointed.
Huge thanks to Curtis Craddock for supplying a review copy.