Publisher: Tor on August 29, 2017
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
A polymath princess and her faithful musketeer must unravel the plot of a thousand-year-old madman in order to save an a foreign kingdom from a disastrous civil war.
Caelum is an uninhabitable gas giant like Jupiter. High above it are the Risen Kingdoms, occupying flying continents called cratons. Remnants of a shattered world, these vast disks of soaring stone may be a thousand miles across. Suspended by magic, they float in the upper layers of Caelum’s clouds.
Born with a deformed hand and utter lack of the family’s blood magic, Isabelle is despised by her cruel father. She is happy to be neglected so she can secretly pursue her illicit passion for math and science. Then, a surprising offer of an arranged royal marriage blows her life wide open and launches her and Jeane-Claude on an adventure that will take them from the Isle des Zephyrs in l’Empire Céleste to the very different Kingdom of Aragoth, where magic deals not with blood, but with mirrors.
Curtis Craddock’s AN ALCHEMY OF MASQUES AND MIRRORS is an incredibly accomplished novel, combining various genre-fiction elements to create a story reminiscent of a decidedly more feminist version of The Three Musketeers.
Born with a deformed hand, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs of l’Empire Celestine would’ve been killed on the day of her birth if it weren’t for the hasty intervention of Jean-Claude, a young King’s Own Musketeer. Charged with protecting the princess, Jean-Claude has stood by her side for more than twenty years, playing the role of the drunkard rather than reveal his shrewd intelligence. But when Isabelle is plucked from obscurity and disgrace to be married to the prince of a foreign nation, the pair will need to do much more than feign ignorance and incompetence to swim in the shark-infested waters of the Aragothic court. Why has Isabelle, reviled for both her deformity and her lack of sorcery, been chosen for this marriage? And is it really an honour…or is it a death sentence?
AN ALCHEMY OF MASQUES AND MIRRORS is by far one of the best, most surprising books I’ve read this year. From the very first chapter to the last, this story had me in its grip and I was desperate to know what would become of our heroes. As with any good historical fantasy set at court, there’s a boatload of intrigue to untangle, and just when I thought I’d figured out who was behind what plot, Craddock pulled the rug out from me. International politics, familial feuds, a shadowy Temple, and individual motives all converge to obscure the truth(s) behind Isabelle’s sudden rise in status. From assassination attempts on airships to political maneuvering at masquerade balls, there isn’t a dull moment to be had as Isabelle and Jean-Claude race to stay ahead of their enemies.
Adding another layer to the complexity of this story is the world building, which is some of the finest I’ve come across in ages. The cultures of French-inspired l’Empire Celestine and Spanish-inspired Aragoth are rich and subtly developed; I never once felt like Craddock relied on info-dumping to establish the political or social landscape that our protagonists were walking (or should I say flying) into. Even the sorcery of these nations is distinct, with l’Empire society ruled by the Sanguinaire blood sorcerers and Aragothic society topped by the mirror-travelling Glasswalkers. The highest ranking Temple officials in both nations also rely on a series of steampunk artifacts imbued with shadowy powers, and I can’t wait to learn more about them in the sequel. What we did see of these magics and devices through Isabelle’s eyes was particularly interesting, as her empirical philosophy-driven mind dissects their components and explains them with a scientific-feeling detail that you don’t often find in fantasy novels.
But as with every great book, it’s the characters in that really make AN ALCHEMY OF MASQUES AND MIRRORS stand out, and Isabelle and Jean-Claude are at its heart. Their surrogate father/daughter relationship is beautiful, heartwarming, and also provides lots of comedic relief after some of the more dire moments. Jean-Claude’s loyalty, love, and pride in Isabelle’s accomplishments are evident throughout the story, and his willingness to sacrifice his personal desires for her safety made me a fierce fan. Isabelle herself relies and dotes upon Jean-Claude despite the fact that he can be something of a political nightmare, standing up for him when others are too willing to be discomfited by his unorthodox tactics. Their warm relationship is a welcome contrast to the scorn and cruelty heaped upon Isabelle by most of society, especially her own biological family. There are hints at other intriguing relationships to be further fleshed out in the sequel, and I for one am dying to see where Craddock takes them. After just reading this, I’m certain he won’t disappoint.
With a twisty plot, fascinating world, witty repartee, and heart, AN ALCHEMY OF MASQUES AND MIRRORS is sure to be a sleeper hit with fantasy readers.