The Mask of Mirrors was one of the first 2021 fantasy releases that I read, and it is giving me some high hopes that this is going to be an amazing year of fantasy releases. This is the first book in a new fantasy series and it has completely captivated me with it's strong world-building, expansive and developed cast of characters, and overall compelling and richly layered plot. M.A. Carrick is the pseudonym for authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, and the super-author duo is just as amazing as you might expect they would be.
This basic synopsis for this book highlights that it features a con artist attempting to pull off a rather enormous/hefty con, and while this is indeed the heart of this particular story, it is also one small part of a much bigger and more unpredictable plot that is full of political maneuverings, scheming, and so many secrets.
Every component of this story is important, from the setting to the world-building to the pacing, but the characters were one of the most vital to the plot, and I am so pleased to say that I think the authors did remarkable work in developing such a strong cast of characters that not only contains quite a few characters to follow, but also managed to make each character feel fully developed, fleshed out, and each have an interesting and unique personality as well as backstory and current storyline. Renata, for all intents and purposes our 'main' protagonist, was a particularly exciting character to follow as we explore both the Ren and Renata versions of her identity (aka, the 'real' and 'con' versions of herself) and I loved how the authors chose to balance this aspect in a way that really showed how difficult and slippery it can be to play with two identities.
In addition to Renata are a variety of other diverse secondary-main characters that we get perspectives from, such as Vargo, Tess, and and Captain Grey, among others. Vargo in particular was a character that stood out to me and is easily probably one of my favorites. He's a great example of the characters in this book in that he's been developed in such a multi-layered and nuanced grey-like manner that you never really know what he's going to do, but you also can't help but love his personality and find yourself eager to see what he's going to do next. I also appreciated the detail that went into developing characters, such as Vargo's repulsion to germs and illness, which seems to hint at a phobia of some sort and that I think really helps to develop his character even further in a variety of ways.
The magic in this book also felt very fresh and exciting and even though we got to explore a lot of what is a part of the magic system, I am really excited for and hoping to experience and learn even more about it in future installments in this series. It's not an overwhelming sort of magic that is constantly around, it's more subtly pervasive and not always discussed, but is always a part of the story in some manner. This is also a very political fantasy, so that takes a good portion of the plot, with plenty of scheming to keep everyone (including the reader) on their toes. You can never really be entirely sure of what someone's intentions are, and everyone usually seems to have some sort of intention or motivation for any and all actions that undertake.
As other reviews have noted, The Mask of Mirrors has a fairly slow pace to it, but I think that's somewhat to be expected in larger fantasy novels. To me, it was a good type of slow pace that allowed for the characters, world, setting, and magic system to be slowly built up and evolve in a way that didn't lend to excessive info-dumping, but instead let the reader slowly and delightfully immerse themselves into the world. It's like the person who chooses to very slowly get into a freezing cold pool by moving in slowly, letting themselves adjust tot he temperature, then continue on--slow, but a comfortable sort of slow. Also, I didn't really notice it because I found the characters and plot so intriguing and I think Carrick moves the story along just enough in a consistent fashion, and it is consistency that is often most important to me in any novel--and there are plenty of more fast-paced moments throughout that help baance everything out.
Overall, it was an easy five stars from me! I genuinely cannot wait to continue this series and I anxiously await its publication, even though that may not be for a while.
*I received a copy of The Mask of Mirrors courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on my rating.*