As a reviewer, it’s easy to get jaded. You read a lot of books, and a lot of books by people at the beginning of their careers. Things that seem fresh and new to almost everyone else become as familiar as well-worn socks: threadbare, with holes, and frequently odiferous.
And then you come across a debut like Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, and it makes the effort worthwhile.
Of course, that could be in part because it takes me back to my undergraduate years, recalling as it does several elements from Final Fantasy XII—like airships, floating islands, weird and wacky worldbuilding, and a loyal guardsman—as well as a setting that recalls some of the batshit complexities of Max Gladstone’s Craft novels (albeit without the intense focus on the tensions of late-stage capitalism reified) while directly and deliberately bringing to mind the 17th-century tensions between the France of Louis Quatorze (also known as the Sun King) and the Spain of Philip IV (whose death precipitated the War of Devolution) and of Charles II.
L’Empire Céleste is ruled by a king, Leon (called Grand Leon, le roi de Tonerre), and an aristocracy who have a bloody sorcery. They can kill with their shadows, or hollow people out and take away their volition. Isabelle des Zephyrs is a Princess with connections to the royal blood. Her father, the Comte des Zephyrs, is one of the cruelest of the empire’s aristocrats. Isabelle has none of his magical inheritance, and a malformed hand to boot. She pursues a career in science and mathematics under a male pseudonym, for women are forbidden such things according to the religion of the day. And Isabelle’s despised by her father: her only ally is the King’s Own Musketeer Jean-Claude, who was there as her birth and whom the king assigned as her bodyguard.
She’s surprised, then, when her father assents to her marriage to a prince of Aragoth, who is considered to be likely next in line to the throne of that foreign nation. Tensions are high between l’Empire Céleste and Aragoth, for when the king of Aragoth dies, many consider a war of succession—which Grand Leon may take advantage of—to be probable. Aragoth’s aristocrats have a kind of mirror magic—and many, many factions.
The artifex Kantelvar—a religious official—has been pushing for her marriage. He promises her a great many things. The reader, and Isabelle, come to learn that Kantelvar has plans and secrets of his own, plans that may put Isabelle in a terrible position.
Among the court and factions of Aragoth, amid assassination attempts and betrayals, Isabelle is only sure of Jean-Claude’s loyalties. Jean-Claude, meanwhile, would do anything to keep Isabelle safe. He’s her loyal protector. And, fortunately, more clever than he looks.
One also feels for the Principe Julio, his elder brother Alejandro, and Alejandro’s wife Xaviera. Margareta, queen of Aragoth, is a fascinating foil for Isabelle: Margareta desires to hold on to power, while Isabelle is getting her first taste of what power and politics might mean.
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is tightly paced. At times its tension is nailbiting. Craddock weaves a tangled web of intrigue leavened with swashbuckling acts of daring. It’s easy to care about Craddock’s characters, and to feel for their perils, for these are lively characters, vividly compelling, and very human. And his worldbuilding is immensely fun, despite its more sinister elements.
In this debut, Craddock also does something that is frequently done poorly, when it is done at all. Some still argue that it is difficult to set a story in a patriarchal society and have women be the focus. Craddock’s novel takes place in very patriarchal societies, but it centres on women and is driven by their choices. Jean-Claude, for all his competence—and he is very competent—is a loyal follower. This is Isabelle’s book. She navigates the limits placed on her as a woman, and as a woman with a malformed arm—a very bad thing in her culture—with aplomb and growing confidence as she learns how to wield the power she has.
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is a really good book. If this is Craddock’s debut, I can’t wait to see what comes next.
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is available now from Tor Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign