M. A. Carrick
published: 19th January 2021
Darkly magical and intricately imagined, The Mask of Mirrors is the unmissable start to the Rook & Rose trilogy, a rich and dazzling fantasy adventure in which a con artist, a vigilante, and a crime lord must unite to save their city.
Nightmares are creeping through the city of dreams…
Renata Viraudax is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadezra — the city of dreams — with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune and her sister’s future.
But as she’s drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as corrupt magic begins to weave its way through Nadezra, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart.
Galley provided by publisher
Before I start this review, I think I ought to be clear that this isn’t a bad book. It’s actually quite good, from an objective standpoint. But it’s also a book that pissed me off no end.
The Mask of Mirrors follows Renata, who plans to infiltrate a noble house by pretending to be a long-lost cousin, for reasons which are currently lost to me but we shall assume involves wanting their money. Only, by doing so, she finds herself entangled in some sort of conspiracy (although this takes a good 300+ pages to become clear. I’m summarising a plot that took nearly 700 pages in two lines but I promise you, it’s not as quick as it sounds).
I may as well make this my first point then: the book moves at a snail’s pace. Nay, slower than a snail. A snail would outstrip this book’s plot in a footrace by a country mile. That’s how slow it moves. And, on one level, I expected this. It’s an adult fantasy, so I knew it’d move a bit slower and be a bit more in depth. However. There’s slow, and then there’s this. Things happened so incrementally they might not have happened at all. I got to the halfway mark, when something finally happened, and it just made it so clear how little had actually come before. I think you could cut out almost the entirety of the first half, that’s how little it adds to the plot.
So the book is slower than usual, fine, but it also seems to have missed the memo on in depth worldbuilding. There’s a lot of description, but I don’t think I could tell you a whole lot about the world itself. There’s a ruling class and a ruled-over class (and the former seems to be sort of colonisers, in a sense? But that’s so barely touched upon it’s easy to forget). They seem to have different religions, although this is only mentioned right at the end of the entire book, and the ruled-over class wants to be free (again, only seen through a single character. There’s no continuous unrest or anything which might display that more obviously). It’s very… light touch worldbuilding, I would say. The sort that’s just told about as and when it becomes necessary. Case in point: the magic system. For the first half of the book, you might be convinced you’re reading a world that doesn’t have magic. But you would be wrong! When the plot requires there to be magic, there is magic. Much like almost every other aspect of the worldbuilding. When the plot requires it, it gets introduced (and barely explained). In all, it’s very much hand-waving look at this lovely description of the physical world. There’s no groundwork for anything that the plot relies on.
As for when the plot itself finally gets moving, well, let’s just say none of the problems Ren encounters ever seem to bother her for long. It takes so little time for a solution to be found that it’s almost ridiculous. It feels like the authors were too busy patting themselves on the back for describing the world, they forgot to do anything else. There is, quite literally, a magic-using woman who, given a problem, knows exactly what the solution is. And Ren has an uncanny ability to hear exactly the information she needs to hear, at exactly the right time. I know that such plots must, out of necessity, contain some degree of happy coincidence, but the number of times it happened truly took the biscuit.
Moving onto the characters, then. My favourite by far was Grey, and he is the only reason I might actually be tempted into continuing the series, but for the fact that he gets about a fifth the page time of anyone else (also that reveal at the end was so obvious). Vargo was also interesting enough but again suffered from having not that much page time. Leaving Ren.
I’m not saying I hated Ren. At the start, she did interest me a fair bit. But after a while, I couldn’t really stand reading her POVs. It’s like, she’s a perfect character. Okay so she’s trying to swindle that noble house, but it’s pretty clear she won’t be able to early on, and thus she starts becoming perfect. She has no major flaws and there was nothing about her I could latch onto and like because of it. She was just… there. And her burgeoning romance with Leato? Who everyone thinks is her first cousin? No, thanks! The most positive feeling I had about this book was when that went nowhere.
All of which meant that, by the time the ending came around, an ending which was supposed to be a holy crap kind of ending, I was just too frustrated to appreciate it. But then again, given the lack of groundwork for that ending in the first place, perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised.