REVIEW: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock
A delightful and engrossing fantasy debut featuring an intelligent heroine and her guardian, a royal musketeer.
In a world of soaring continents and bottomless skies, where a burgeoning new science lifts skyships into the cloud-strewn heights, and ancient blood-borne sorceries cling to a fading glory, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs is about to be married to a man she has barely heard of, the second son of a dying king in an empire collapsing into civil war.
Born without the sorcery that is her birthright but with a perspicacious intellect, Isabelle believes her marriage will stave off disastrous conflict and bring her opportunity and influence. But the last two women betrothed to this prince were murdered, and a sorcerer-assassin is bent on making Isabelle the third. Aided and defended by her loyal musketeer, Jean-Claude, Isabelle plunges into a great maze of prophecy, intrigue, and betrayal, where everyone wears masks of glamour and lies. Step by dangerous step, she unravels the lies of her enemies and discovers a truth more perilous than any deception.
Dear Mr. Craddock,
To be perfectly honest, I’m not much for clockwork stories. I’ve tried one and it did little for me. However, when I saw the cover of this book before reading the blurb, I thought “I want.” And a musketeer? Along with a strong heroine who saves the day? I’m in.
Starting in media res with Jean-Claude racing to stave off disaster, this one gets off to a quick start. I have almost no idea what is going on but okay I like this musketeer with his slightly cynical sense of humor and view of the world. He does save the day and literally Princess Isabelle’s life with some quick thinking and fancy verbal footwork.
Then the story slows a bit to catch its breath and bring this world to life. It’s not pretty or fair. In fact, it can be brutal and it’s the one Isabelle has lived in and been negotiating her existence in for years when we meet her again. Given the musketeer character and what I know of our world during the 17th century, I could pick out inspiration for these countries, these kings and the complex social upheavals and politics going on here though in the end, there is some clever reimagining.
Isabelle is the true lead character and she’s a delight. Forced to hide her intelligence due to social disapproval of women learning anything, she’s quick and resourceful in finding ways to feed her voracious mind. She also loves math and languages and is fiercely loyal to the musketeer who returns her devotion in a fatherly way.
I won’t even try to explain the plot but suffice it to say that it took about half the book before everything was laid out and I felt more at home in this world where little is as it appears and loyalties are hidden. I’m still not entirely sure of the mechanics of these places so after a while, I just enjoyed the descriptions and “went with it.” Once the plot gathers itself and picks up the pace, then a lot of what I’d read in the first half began to make sense.
This is a story that gallops to the finish with a surprise on every other page and I just gave myself to watching the forces for Good battle the forces of Evil as the plot wound tighter and tighter and Isabelle worked to save the world with her smarts. This is more a fantasy story than a romance though it appears that Isabelle might have a man in her life who appreciates her for who and what she is. Though this is supposed to be the first in a trilogy, the book can stand alone. Thank you for a heroine who kicks ass with her brain. B