Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

A contender for this year’s best fantasy novel is Curtis Craddock’s debut fantasy An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors.  Don’t let the cumbersome title fool you—this is a smoothly written, elegantly crafted, and highly entertaining read!  Poised as the first in a series, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is a political fantasy–and historical fantasy–reminiscent of classic Guy Gavriel Kay novels like A Song for Arbonne or Tigana.  Set in the fantasy world of The Risen Kingdoms, with superficial similarities to Europe’s 17th century Baroque era, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors presents a world constantly on the brink of war, twisted with layer upon layer of intrigue, with only one firm villain and two clear heroes—and a whole cast of in-betweens, whose shifting loyalties form the uncertain foundation of the tale.

Onto this stage steps Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs of l’Empire Celeste.  Born with a physical disfigurement, Isabelle has grown up in her father’s court, suffering his abuse and brutal magic, almost entirely friendless and alone, and nearly ignored.  In this atmosphere, she’s able to pursue her true passions of science and mathematics, becoming (secretly) one of the foremost mathematicians of her day.  Her only loyal companions are the man charged with guarding her since birth, King’s Own Musketeer Jean-Claude; and a curious handmaiden, Marie.

Thanks to her disfigurement and low esteem at her father’s court, Isabelle believes life will hold no more than this—until foreign machinations thrust her into international politics.  Talked into accepting Principe Julio de Aragoth’s marriage proposal, and believing this is her chance for peace and love, Isabelle and Jean-Claude set sail into a more treacherous journey than they bargained for.

It’s not always easy to get a completely firm grasp on the highly complex and intricately detailed worldbuilding, but that’s OK.  It’s not necessary, and it’s part of what makes the story so convincing.  A character doesn’t need to explain the mechanics of an airship in order to fear that he might fall overboard.  We’re given tantalizing glimpses of the complex mechanisms that fuel this world—the galvanosphere surrounding an airship’s orrery; the clockwork omnimatons so ancient even the characters don’t understand how they run.  Isabelle’s knowledge and curiosity help us along the way.

And underlying all of this is a completely original and splendid system of magic: the Saintsblood Sorceries, particular powers passed down through each nation’s royal bloodlines, and through which the royal families cling to power and manipulate each other and the fates of nations.  Craddock has created a magical system as original in its own (totally different) way as Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series (previously discussed here and here at borg.com).

The plot is labyrinthine and action-packed, full of assassination attempts from all quarters; courtly intrigue galore; grandiose philosophies; and a cast of characters anchored by the strong, smart, resourceful, and eminently likeable Isabelle and Jean-Claude.  Their relationship is fresh and rewarding—not the typical leads in an epic fantasy.  Supporting everything is Craddock’s strong, confident, often-funny, and sharply observant writing that goes from heart-wrenching to hilarious on a single page without missing a beat.  This is a dazzling debut, and I will be staring at my chronograph until the next installment comes out.

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors from Tor Books is available now here at Amazon.

Advertisements