An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (2018), the first volume in Curtis Craddock’s The Risen Kingdoms series, was an extremely accomplished fantasy novel. It combined intrigue, adventure, and swashbuckling in a setting filled with airships and floating kingdoms, ancient religion, lost knowledge, and powerful magic. Its politics bore the influence of Renaissance Europe while its narrative approach held something of the flair of Alexandre Dumas. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors set a strikingly high bar for any sequel to follow.
Fortunately, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery more than meets that bar. It’s just as good as its predecessor—if not better.
Isabelle des Zephyrs finished the events of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors in a position of strength and triumph. Her king, le Grand Leon (a figure based at least partially on Louis XIV, the Sun King), had appointed her ambassador to the Great Peace—and she had newly discovered her magic, the magic that her society considers a prerequisite for power and (at least according to their organised religion) a soul worthy of salvation. With her intelligence and determination, she feels as though she might be in a reasonably solid position.
But political considerations make it expedient for le Grand Leon to strip Isabelle of nobility and title to underscore his commitment to the peace—and to deny an avenue of attack to his enemies. Isabelle finds herself courted by some of those same enemies, and at risk from enemies of her own, as she navigates the complicated and swiftly-changing tides of intrigue at the centre of le Grand Leon’s empire.
Meanwhile, Jean-Claude—King’s Musketeer, Isabelle’s protector since birth, her friend and father-figure—finds himself catapulted into danger (again) when he witnesses a gruesome mass murder by a sorcerer who’s lost control of his bloodshadow. Investigating, he encounters a series of murders and anatomical experiments on living people—and the possibility that the murdering sorcerer was one of le Grand Leon’s bastards, unknown until now. These murders seem to be instigated by a figure known as the Harvest King—a name that Isabelle, too, has heard.
Worse is to come when a wasting sickness strikes at the heart of le Grand Leon’s power. A sorcerer stripped of sorcery cannot hold noble rank or title: law, as well as custom, now affirms this. And le Grand Leon’s sorcery is wasting away.
Sickness? Or enemy action? Isabelle and Jean-Claude are at ground zero for a coup that seeks to overthrow the established order and set up a new world. And Isabelle’s enemies have tried to make her over into their own image. How can you fight a force that can take over your own body and turn it into a tool to harm your allies?
A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery is a blisteringly tense read. Craddock has a brilliant command of pace and tension, balancing swashbuckling scenes of combat and peril with just as perilous but much quieter scenes of intrigue and political maneuvering. The characterisation continues excellent. Jean-Claude remains a man with a complicated history, competent in many areas but with interesting flaws and not as physically fit as he used to be. Isabelle’s wit and determination comes from her (less-than-ideal) upbringing and her experience with disability and with using what power she had to make space for herself and people like her to thrive: she’s a natural philosopher by inclination and a politician by necessity. Her position is weakened in society by some of those strengths—the willingness to care for and try to protect others, a desire to seek justice—and her errors are those of inexperience and having no real good choices, rather than inconstancy or lack of intelligence. The other characters have less prominence but they’re just as engaging—and some that had little to do in the first book begin, here, to come into their own.
The worldbuilding, too, continues to satisfy. In A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery, Craddock expands the world he’s already created, giving us a taste of the rich tumult of city life, introducing us to the idea of fishing for giant spiders under the floating nations, bringing up more history and more glimpses of the wider world, and deepening our understanding of le Grand Leon’s court and its factions. Craddock gives us a vivid, complicated world, full of life and depth and breadth and history, a world that feels as though it extends beyond the edge of the page.
This is a compelling sequel, and a fine book in its own right. It’s a cracking good read. I enjoyed it tremendously. If you enjoy fantasy with plenty of intrigue, then this series is definitely worth a look.
A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery is available 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, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. 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, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.