The Mask Of Mirrors – Dressed To The Nines

maskofmirrors-cover-664x1024-1Boy, 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

An Illusion Of Thieves – A Garden Of Larceny

81zzj2jtx5lI am disappointed that I was unable to get to An Illusion of Thieves, by Cate Glass, sooner – as it likely would have made our best of 2019 list. The first book in the Chimera series, this (ironically) sneaky book has slipped under the radar for many this year, which is a shame. While this debut book has some issues, it is also a fresh and fun take on the heist genre and looks to be building to something incredible. With a little upfront investment and trust, you will soon find yourself in love with the cast and story.

Thieves has an interesting start that is both explosive and slow at the same time. An enormous amount of life changes happen to our protagonist, Romy, in the first few pages. She is a courtesan of a powerful lord in a corrupt city, but her younger brother Neri robs someone and is caught – shaming her into banishment. All of this is set up to place Romy and Neri in the slums of the city where they must both learn jobs to survive. Also, they are both sorcerers who are being hunted for their innate magic. That’s right, welcome to another round of “magic is super outlawed and we must hide our dark secrets”! I tease because it is an overdone trope, but I actually liked how the ban on magic contributed to the set up of this story. The first half of the book feels almost like watching someone play through a well-written life sim. Romy and Neri both struggle with learning basic skills that will keep them from starving to death and allow them to contribute to society. It sounds boring, but it’s actually really engrossing watching them slowly carve out a life together. That being said, hoooo boyyyyy, did I want Neri to die horribly for the first third of this book. A huge chunk of the first part of Thieves is devoted to the evolution of the relationship between Romy and Neri. While it ends in a really compelling and satisfying place, there is a lot of Neri being the absolute worst and Romy having to clean it up for the first 100 pages. Glass is definitely an older child because she has captured the worst frustrations of having a younger sibling perfectly. However, once you make it past the midway point in the book – something interesting happens. The plot and purpose of the book take a drastic, and fascinating, shift.

In the course of building up their meager lives, Romy and Neri meet a large cast of compelling characters who both help and harm them. As the story continues, the magic system in the world is slowly expanded upon more, and you learn that most sorcerers have a unique kind of magic that they can use to influence the world. Romy, for example, can implant memories in people and Neri can walk through walls. The siblings also eventually meet two magic users, who I won’t spoil, and eventually start to explore their powers. And then a catalyst changes the direction of the tale. A character approaches Romy and basically puts her in a difficult situation – she can either rob a very powerful and well-connected person, or watch the city burn down around her. And when placed in a position of helping the greater good at massive personal risk, she creates a super awesome crime-fighting band of super thieves. I cannot express how awesome this was.

One thing you see in a lot of heist novels is a short and colorful introduction into the crew before rapidly moving onto the stealing. Glass takes a much more leisurely and organic route and slowly brings this crew of people together naturally over the course of their lives. It is masterfully done and when push came to shove I honestly found myself thinking “I mean, of course, they are going to form a group of magical super thieves, it absolutely makes sense.” In addition, when An Illusion of Thieves wraps up, you learn about a new world-ending problem that only this crew of magical do-gooders can handle, and they immediately set out to go handle this new problem (which is the set up for book two). Look, if you don’t want to read an episodic series about magical Robin Hood saving the world through larceny than we don’t have a lot in common.

Some other general assessments include that the characters and worldbuilding are good, but a little inconsistent. I felt Glass did an amazing job bringing the city where the book is set to life – but the world didn’t feel like it extended beyond its walls. Similarly, the smaller cast of characters that the book focuses on had a ton of life and depth to them, but some of the side characters occasionally felt like they were mannequins just there to progress the plot.

Overall, I really enjoyed An Illusion of Thieves. It requires a little work at the start, but it rewards your dedication with a one of a kind heist novel with a ton of great character growth and magical fun. It is original, well written, relatable, and stands out amongst a lot of powerful books that came out in 2019. I am really hoping the Chimera series is more than a trilogy because I would enjoy reading many more books about this band of misfits saving the world through the power of crime. This debut is definitely worth your time, please come join me in watching this team of lovable rogues save the world.

Rating: An Illusion of Thieves – 8.0/10

The Quantum Magician – Look, I Really Tried

the-quantum-magician-9781781085707_hrSeriously, I did (see title). I really, really wanted to like The Quantum Magician, by Derek Künsken. The book has a fantastic premise, a cool world, awe inspiring physics, and a story that I was genuinely invested in. Unfortunately, in addition to all of this it has one of the most unlikable protagonists I have read in recent years. I can tell that he was supposed to be unlikable, he’s a rogue with loose morals, but you succeeded a little too well Künsken. Our lead, Belisarius (or Bel), cruises into the unlikable zone with relative ease in the first 50 pages – but then just keeps on trucking into utter bastard in the next 100. Disclaimer, I only got about 50% of the way through this book before I put it down – but I feel informed enough to extrapolate my feelings from the first half. If another reviewer out there has read the full book, which would be hard as I only received it as an ARC from the lovely people at Solaris in exchange for a honest review (sorry guys), and thinks the second half is god’s gift to literature – I will happily read the second half and amend this review. However, until then I am sticking to my guns and using them to blow this novel out of the sky.

We start on a high note. The premise of The Quantum Magician is a cool one: in a world ruled by massive federations of planets, a rogue world wants to smuggle an advanced fleet of warships across contended space to wage a war of independence. In order to do this, they have hired our protagonist, Belisarius – the quantum magician, who is known to perform miracles when it comes to retrieving or moving materials. Belisarius is indeed an incredible con-man/thief, but he is accustomed to stealing/moving things slightly smaller than a fleet of spaceships. There is a fun hint of mystery in the story, as initially it is very unclear as to why this rogue group even wants to move these warships. They seem wildly outdated, underpowered, and seem to have a very strange and confusing design. Thus, for our protagonist, this job represents both a mystery to unravel (why they want to move the ships) and potentially his greatest accomplishment – a crime to go down in legend. To pull this feat off, Belisarius will use a plethora of tricks and cons that revolve around quantum physics – which he does a good job explaining. Unfortunately, he does it with a smarmy and condescending attitude that makes it hard to take his commentary seriously.

I was originally attracted to Bel. You learn early on that he is a genetically engineered human who can manually enhance his brain to view quantum states. It sounded fairly similar to someone with high functioning autism, and I was looking forward to a story from that perspective. The problem with Bel is that, while he has the skills of an incredible con-man, he has the charisma of a sack of mud and the arrogance of an American hedge fund manager just prior to 2008. When he enhances his brain, he essentially redirects processing power from other parts of his intelligence into specific areas. As a result, he can momentarily become the greatest physicist in the universe in exchange for being absolute garbage at everything else – such as human interaction. Künsken demonstrates this effect through tons of moments in the book where Bel solves an extremely complicated problem, but comes off like an unlikable jackass. The issue with this is it essentially soured all the emotional payoff in the book. Every single time that Bel did something cool that won my affection, he immediately said something cringe worthy that curb stomped my budding love. This lessens the various climaxes throughout the book and made me slowly come to resent Bel.

Bel’s lack of social graces are a seriously problematic design choice for me, and it made it hard to recommend The Quantum Magician. However, if you aren’t bothered by his holier-than-thou attitude there is a lot here to still like. The science is realistic, cool, and explained in a way that anyone can understand it – which takes real talent. The world piqued my curiosity, and who doesn’t want to read a story about smuggling a fleet of warships? Apparently me, when it is told from the POV of a complete dick.

Rating: The Quantum Magician – 4.0/10

The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn – A Gritty Adventure With A Cast Of One

35838132I am back from Europe where I bought way too many heavy books that I had to carry home. While on my trip I managed to read a number of books that I am excited to talk about, starting with The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, by Tyler Whitesides. The book actually comes out today, and since I haven’t seen a lot of people talking about it, I thought I would do my duty to bring it to your attention.

Ardor Benn is a massive (~800 pages) heist novel that I have had my eye on for awhile. It is Tyler’s debut work and is extremely impressive in size and scope for a first book. The story follows the aforementioned Ardor Benn, ruse artist extraordinaire, as he steals from the rich and gives to himself across the archipelago in which the story takes place. The world and plot that Tyler has created in this book is definitely its best quality, and is one of the most interesting settings I have come across. Ardor, known for his con talents, is sought out by a priest who hires him for a multi-stage heist to save the world. The heist part of this heist novel is excellent with each stage being complicated, exciting, and engrossing as you watch Ardor and his crew work through a series of roadblocks on the way to their prize. The pacing is mostly good, with the book moving quickly despite its massive size, but there were a few moments where it felt like the plot was dragging its feet as it went through the minutiae of planning various ruses. In the end though, the plot kept me deeply invested until the last page despite a couple of issues becoming apparent the deeper I got into the novel. However, before I talk about the bad, let’s talk about more of the great: the worldbuilding.

The world of Ardor Benn is fascinating, deep, and well written with a complicated nation laid out for you over the course of the novel. You slowly learn about the backstory, government, religion, and economy of the islands, and Tyler has made an original and interesting world that I want to be in. In addition, there is a “magic system” that revolves around a substance called “grit” – material that has been fed to, and pooped out of, dragons for processing. Depending on the material fed to the dragons, different kinds of explosive grit can be made to do a number of different things such as: make orbs of light, cancel gravity, create explosions, or form barriers. The book heavily revolves around grit, and it is a cool idea for a weapon that results in tons of weird fights where people are using the various effects to gain an upper hand.

Although I loved the world and the plot, Ardon Benn was not flawless and as I got further and further into the book, a number of small issues started to snowball. First, the characters. A key issue with this heist novel is that despite the book having multiple POV, more than one antagonist, and a number of side characters, there is really only one character of import in the story – Ardor Benn. Ardor is a great character himself, but the more time that you spend with his supporting cast, the more you realize that they have no depth and are only there to make Ardor look good. Take Ardor’s partner in crime and oldest friend, Raek. I was super excited to get to know Raek, a goliath of a man who is great at math, because his introduction was awesome. However, as the book progressed, Raek would disappear for hundreds of pages at a time – only to return when Ardor needed a cool tool or gadget that only Raek could make. Then there was the thief that Ardor partners with for this massive ruse, Quarrah. Quarrah was clearly meant to be a major part of the narrative, even being one of the POV’s through which the book was narrated. But at the end of the day, Quarrah’s story really only consists of her having internal monologues about one of two things – how her skills as a thief have left her woefully unprepared to be a con artist (which while true, got super old after 400 pages of it) and how Ardor Benn was the greatest person she has ever met in every possible way. Both Raek and Quarrah has no depth at all, and I found myself very unmoved when they revealed their backstories later in the novel. I am slightly exaggerating when I say the only character was Ardor; both the priest who hires them for the job and the King they are trying to rob (spoilers) are interesting and fun – but it doesn’t do enough to make up for the fact that 80% of the book revolves around Ardor. The book is simply too long to spend that much time talking about one person.

The one additional problem that Ardor Benn has, besides some of it cast, is Tyler tends to over explain what is happening in the book sometimes. There was one instance in particular that is burned into my mind, where one character threatened another (very obviously) and Tyler wrote what felt like a paragraph of internal monologue of the threatened character saying “this guy is threatening me”. A big part of the fun in heist novels is the balance of understanding what is going on, and the mystery of guessing at what you don’t get. Tyler leaned a little to much into giving the reader full understanding and it turned a few passages that might have been thrilling into dull exposition.

Despite ragging on it for two paragraphs, I want to stress that the plot and world of this book are one of a kind and I definitely still recommend it and will be continuing on with the series myself. This is a very impressive debut and Tyler Whitesides is clearly a talented writer with a lot of potential. However, there are still a few kinks in his writing and this book desperately needs some more leads to share the narrative load. All in all, it was an original and thrilling read, and if you can get past some issues I am sure you will love The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn.

Rating: The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn – 7.0/10

Six of Crows – Finding Out What Everyone Is Cawing About

six_of_crowsSix of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo, has been sitting on my to-do list for a very long time. The book is a wildly successful YA heist novel that is a spin off of another wildly successful YA series, the Grisha Verse. I have had a ton of people I know tell me they loved the series and recommend it to me because I love the Lies of Locke Lamora, but there have always been a few personal red flags that led me to suspect I might not enjoy it as much as friends thought I would. However, the book has been on my list long enough that I decided to say screw it and just read it and see what I thought.

I went into Six of Crows not having read its parent series, and I was happy to find out that I definitely didn’t need to have read the Grisha Verse to understand what was going on and get invested. The story is fairly standard for a heist novel: a crew of six charismatic people with their own issues sets out to make a big score. The initial plan fails miserably, and then the team must use each individual’s unique skills to compensate and succeed. The heist in question is essentially about rescuing a prisoner from a military installation that is heavily fortified.

Our main protagonist, and heist gang leader, is Kaz Brekker – a mastermind who is on a secret quest of vengeance that is furthered by the heist. It’s not the most original backstory, but I grew to enjoy Kaz and his blunt mannerisms. The crew consists of (and I’m paraphrasing here a little) the mastermind, an inside man, a thief, a marksman, a courtesan, and a demolitions expert). When I initially started the book I found three of the characters (Kaz, the inside man, and the courtesan) a bit grating on the nerves, but instantly loved the other three. In addition, I came around on every one of them by the end of the book. Each character has their own reasons for being on the heist and their own objectives, and I feel that Leigh does a wonderful job intertwining the personal stories of the characters with the heist story of the group. The character dialogue is fun and easy, and the personalities of the group are varied enough that there is something for every reader.

The plot actually felt a little lackluster for a heist novel, but the book made up for it in its worldbuilding. I assume that the Grisha Verse has a lot of this as well, but the world that the characters inhabit is extremely well fleshed out and deep. My favorite part of the book was the analysis of the culture of the country that the prison was in as part of the heist planning. It all felt like I was learning about real places, which is rare for any book – let alone a YA novel.

My one major criticism of Six of Crows is that it feels like the novel was “dumbed down” to fit the YA label. It feels like it has the structure for a much larger and extensive heist novel in place, but then it was redone to make it more appealing to a younger audience. This is most apparent in the character backstories, with each character having a story and skill set that had me placing them in their late 20’s to mid 30’s. So when I realized that the cast were all supposed to be teenagers, I had a serious break from immersion. I have a really hard time believing that some of the cast had enough years of experience to have some of the skills they proclaimed to have (which is a weird nitpick I know, but it really pulled me out of the book).

At the end of the day, I don’t think Six of Crows is quite as good as many other reviewers feel – but I also think it would be hard for anyone to not enjoy it a least a little. Leigh Bardugo clearly has a serious talent for worldbuilding and characters, and I hope she does some more adult fantasy in her future. If you are looking for a fun heist novel that’s an easy read with a memorable cast and forgettable plot, this might be for you.

Rating: Six of Crows – 7.5/10


(P.S. Whoever designed that cover art deserves some sort of award. It is probably in my top 10 best designed covers ever.)