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REVIEW: Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

Dear Ms. Griffin,

I’m a big Edgar Allan Poe fan. Any book with a title referencing him is always going to get a second look from me. Combined with a striking cover, it’s almost guaranteed I will pick it up. I initially thought Masque of the Red Death was a debut, but your name sounded familiar so I did a quick search. I discovered I’d reviewed your debut (a contemporary YA) a few years ago. And while I didn’t much care for that novel, I’m always willing to give an author another try, especially if their next work is something different.

red-deathMasque of the Red Death takes place in a neo-Victorian, steampunk city reminiscent of New Orleans. It’s a decaying metropolis, practically in ruins, in no small part due to a highly contagious plague that’s afflicted the populace. Our protagonist, Araby Worth, is the daughter of a scientist. Her father invented the masks that allow people to travel out in the open without fear of contracting the disease. This allows her a position of privilege.

You see, only the wealthy can afford the masks. The poor are left to fend for themselves. Of course, the rich take all this doom and gloom seriously. With death and disease all around, most of them spend their time at the Debauchery Club where they can forget their pain through drugs and meaningless sex.

Araby’s reasons for going to the Debauchery Club, however, are more personal. She once had a twin brother and we’re led to believe he died from the plague. Araby feels both responsibility for his death and guilt because she survived. She intends to live the rest of her life in stasis, forgoing everything and anything that her brother will never experience. (Yeah, it’s a little overkill but teenagers can be pretty dramatic.) But Araby’s existence is shaken up when she meets Elliott, her best friend’s older brother. Elliott wants to start a revolution and he needs Araby’s help to make it happen.

If there’s one thing I like about this book, it’s the atmosphere. It’s dreary, which suits the premise. An extremely contagious, and extremely lethal, disease is sweeping through your city. There is no cure, and only a select few have access to the one thing that has a chance of preventing infection. I’d be hopeless too.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t appreciate this as much as I’d like because I spent a good chunk of the book utterly confused as to when and where it takes place. I admit it’s the fantasy reader in me. I like the setting clearly defined and portrayed. I never could figure out if Masque took place in an alternate historical earth featuring steampunk technology or if it was a constructed, secondary fantasy world. There are aspects of the setting that can even support a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s almost as if the setting attempted to be everything for every reader, and that never ends well. Readers who aren’t as fixated on setting probably won’t mind the vagueness but those who do pay attention to that sort of thing may run into some issues.

Araby is a frustrating protagonist. The angst stemming from her survivor’s guilt makes sense for the majority of the book but when the big revelation comes towards the end, I couldn’t help but think the degree to which she self-flagellated was blown out of proportion. In many ways it makes sense for her to go through life, merely existing and trying to escape, but while that’s a realistic course of action, it often ends up being dull to read about.

When Araby gets pushed out of her comfort zone, I should have cheered. Instead I ended up boggling over some of her decisions. For example, why in the world would you steal things from your parents because a guy you just met (and who you don’t even like) told you to? There’s no logic here, and it makes Araby look a bit dim. She also goes along with many things that would normally set off warning bells. There’s being naïve and sheltered, and then there’s having no sense of self-preservation. It’d be nice to think these actions are due to Araby’s survivor’s guilt, which in turn has fed a sort of fatalistic attitude but I’m not convinced that was intentional.

There’s also a love triangle. I’m sure no one is surprised by this, given the state of the genre these days. Araby is initially taken by Will, a bouncer at the club she frequents with her best friend. Will seems like a nice guy — he’s kind to Araby, despite the obvious difference in social class; he takes care of his two younger siblings. I truly liked the portrayal of the relationship between them. But when Elliott was introduced and began to take up more page time with Araby, I knew Will’s viability as a love interest was going to plummet.

This irritated me because Elliott is a jerk. He’s not nice. He tells Araby not to trust him but he also expects her to do all these things he asks. He’s jealous and possessive for no good reason. There’s a memorable scene in which he threatens to drop her into a river filled with hungry crocodiles. None of these things scream love interest to me. They do, however, scream Get away. I will never understand the allure of the jerk love interest. Maybe I’m supposed to excuse Elliott because of his tragic family history but that’s not going to happen. Araby’s family history is just as tragic and she doesn’t treat people the way he does.

But my biggest complaint about the book has to do with its execution. While I really did like the dark, gloomy feel of it, many aspects did not ring true. Like many other people, Araby goes to the Debauchery Club to forget her sorrows. For some people, this means having meaningless sex with strangers. For others, like Araby, this means getting high. Pretty edgy material, right?

Except it doesn’t read edgy. Nothing about how the club is portrayed is believable or authentic. Araby is constantly getting high but her drug trips never actually read like drug trips. She was always passing out or falling asleep. That’s not getting high. That’s being sedated or getting roofied, neither of which I think is the intention. Looking back, I realize I had a similar complaint with your previous novel. I really dislike the inclusion of “shocking” content to be edgy without actually going all in and being edgy. If things like drugs and meaningless hook-ups are going to be portrayed in novels, then it needs to be more than just for show.

I had high hopes for Masque of the Red Death. Maybe too high. It had a lot of elements I like: gothic atmosphere, plague, and references to Edgar Allan Poe. But the execution left a lot to be desired. Combined with frustrating characters and a love triangle lacking any subtlety, I regretted being lured in by the pretty cover. D

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

9 Comments

  1. Joanne Renaud
    May 12, 2012 @ 18:06:34

    Thanks for the review. That’s too bad; I was really excited about this book. But a well-crafted setting is my favorite part of fantasy/SF/post-apocalyptic novels, and the apparent lack of one in “Masque” makes this not very interesting to me. I might check this out at the library, but I definitely won’t buy it new.

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  2. Kelly
    May 14, 2012 @ 00:29:42

    I am still mesmerized by that cover. It’s so unfair to all the good books with bad covers.

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  3. Marumae
    May 14, 2012 @ 00:59:34

    “Masque of the Red Death” is my favorite Poe story so I was excited as hell for this novel! I’m sorry you weren’t as impressed with it, but I’m still willing to give it a shot I think :). I ordered it from the library.

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  4. Maili
    May 14, 2012 @ 06:42:20

    @Kelly: LOL. That wins the Quotation of the Day award. So true.

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  5. Angela
    May 14, 2012 @ 08:04:32

    I wanted to read this book really badly, just for the Poe connection. Every time you brought up an issue in your review I thought, I can deal with that. Until they just kept piling on. There’re too many things here that irritate me in general, and in YA in particular (I’m SO sick of the love triangle. Ugh.) Add all that to the drug use – which is usually a miss on the hit-or-miss scale – and I’ll take a pass on this one.

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  6. Sofie
    May 14, 2012 @ 11:12:20

    Thanks for the review, Jia. I won’t be reading this one. I made the mistake once of reading a book you didn’t rate well thinking I could get past the issues only to discover that you were right all along. If you rate it less than a “B” I know to stay away. Some of your Cs are too generous. The love triangle thing needs to die, along with falling for the jerks. What’s so bad about loving someone nice and respectful? Thanks again!

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  7. Isobel Carr
    May 14, 2012 @ 14:02:44

    This is a prime example of the kind of set up that leaves me going WTF? So there’s a deadly and highly contagious virus out there, but only the rich can afford the mask/cure/whatever. How is the world supposed to go one? What good is money going to be when there’s no one left to grow food or refine gasoline or run the power station? The worldbuilding logic simply breaks down too quickly for me.

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  8. Daily Deals: Romance and a Dystopian YA
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 06:29:14

    [...] Everything is in ruins.A devastating plague has decimated the population, and those who are left live in fear of catching it as the city crumbles around them.So what does Araby Worth have to live for? Nights in the Debauchery Club, beautiful dresses, glittery makeup . . . and tantalizing ways to forget it all.But in the depths of the club—in the depths of her own despair—Araby will find more than oblivion. She will find Will, the terribly handsome proprietor of the club, and Elliott, the wickedly smart aristocrat. Neither is what he seems. Both have secrets. Everyone does.And Araby may find not just something to live for, but something to fight for—no matter what it costs her. There are a number of YA dystopians on sale. I suspect that publishers went on a buying spree after Hunger Games exploded and then realized that people just wanted to read Hunger Games and not necessarily an onslaught of dystopian novels. This book checks all those dystopian novels. Its the first in a series. It has a cliffhanger ending. It has a love triangle. What makes this interesting is that the female protagonist is essentially a drug addict. Jia didn’t think much of it, giving it a D: [...]

  9. Hubert Baggio
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 12:19:51

    I read one third of this book before looking for review afraid the remaining two third would be like the first: with no real descriptions of the universe, the author skimming above evrything, and flaws in Araby character too important. She is described with having a working brain but her actions don’t make any sense. I think the author made too many mistake for it to be voluntary, it is just a bad book.

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