Boy, do I love tarot cards. There is something I find so cool about them. I am not big on fortune-telling in general but there is something so romantic, so enthralling, about shuffling a deck, laying out some very intricate and beautifully illustrated cards, flipping over the answers to difficult questions, and spending an entire book considering what their nebulous interpretations could mean. Which brings us to today’s review, The Mask of Mirrors (first in the Rook & Rose series) by M.A. Carrick (a combo pseudonym for Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms). Mask is part political thriller, part heist novel, part superhero origin story, and all glamorous outfits all the time. I had a surprisingly good time with this book, and I suspect you will as well.
The Mask of Mirrors grabbed me right out of the gate with its premise. The book tells the story of Ren, and Ren, as the back of the book will tell you, is a con artist. She has come to the sparkling city of Nadežra with one goal – to trick her way into a noble house, securing her fortune and her sister’s future. Her plan is to pretend to be the daughter of a long-estranged member of a noble house, fake her way through the glitz and pageantry of the nobles for a few months, and get adopted back into the house where she (and her sister Tess, who poses as her maid) will live a life of luxury. There is only one problem. Very soon after beginning her ruse, Ren discovers that the noble house she is lying her way into is now destitute. Now, in order to rob them, Ren must help the family first win back their fortunes. It is a difficult task, but as Ren’s alternative is to return to the gutter from whence she fled, she will stop at nothing to return these rubes to power only to rob them blind immediately after.
This is a very innovative and fun take on a heist to me. There is a sort of Russian nesting doll of trickery abound that makes things delightfully complicated, both in the ruse’s execution and Ren’s feelings about what she is doing. It creates a huge number of chances for character growth and depth and both Brennan nor Helms capitalize on those opportunities. Speaking of which, I found the author trade-off completely seamless. I didn’t even notice there were two different people writing until I accidentally read the back author bio about 70% of the way through. Both writers did such a fantastic job blending their styles that I could never tell them apart. But that might have to do with the fact that the entire book is just so amazingly good at making you care about the authors’ passions.
Mask is just stuffed with things that the authors clearly care a lot about on a personal level. There is so much detail and page space in this book devoted to describing the outfits that characters are wearing – and it absolutely works. There is a clear importance of dress woven into the narrative like a thread (ok I will stop) that makes all the details about lace and sleeves feel exciting. Carrick’s passion for clothing is also infectious. I found myself thinking about throwing out some old ugly sweaters on multiple occasions and started browsing expensive suits even though I have nowhere to wear them thanks to the COVID plague. Some of the other passions of the book involve tarot (as I already mentioned), masquerades, bureaucracy, dreams, masked vigilantes, and mercantile negotiations. All of these will haunt your mind and imagination as you read Mask as Carrick’s passion pulls you into a riptide of empathy. Empathy that will form an ocean of attachment to the lovable cast.
Ren is definitely the ringmaster in this circus, and she is a blast. Many heist novels suffer from telling about how great their mastermind is, instead of showing, which is not even a slight problem here. We get to see how Ren’s brilliance and tenacity help her claw her way into the good graces of high society, and you definitely feel like she earns all of her victories. Supporting Ren is a menagerie of side characters, some foils and others allies for her ruse. Unfortunately, the depth of the side cast varies enormously. Characters like Grey and Vargo steal the stage with their mysterious backgrounds and wonderful complexity. Meanwhile, Sedge definitely feels like an empty wastebasket into which the authors toss easy plot devices.
My other major criticism of The Mask of Mirrors is that it doesn’t quite feel like a fully contained story. Carrick clearly has plans for an epic tale of heroics, cunning, and treachery, but this results in Mask feeling like it tells only a piece of a larger story, not its own fully formed tale. The stopping point at the end of book one almost feels arbitrary, I don’t feel like I got full closure, and I hunger for more story. The pacing is also slow, but I didn’t see that as an issue as much as a narrative choice. If you are enjoying the book, it will feel like a calm stroll through a rose garden. On the other hand, if you don’t like the story, I suspect it will feel like being dragged behind the world’s slowest and most tireless horse. Depends on the reader, but I definitely caught the sweet scent of flowers – not manure.
The Mask of Mirrors was an excellent start to my 2021 reading and really pumped me up for everything to come this year. It has style, it has grace, it has passion. The only thing it doesn’t have is you reading it right now. Go remedy that. If any of the topics in my list of Carrick’s passions struck your fancy, or if you like political intrigues or heists, you will love this book. I am already counting the days until I get my hands on the next book in the series.
Rating: The Mask of Mirrors – 8.5/10