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Review: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, by Curtis Craddock

Book One in The Risen Kingdoms

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (2017) is a fantasy novel set in the Risen Kingdoms, where the continents are set adrift in the skies, and whose ships must sail through the ether between them. The setting is vaguely medieval, loosely based on 17th century France and Spain, and as such the story is rife with court intrigue, looming war, and royal squabbles, added to which is the magical powers the various ruling families exhibit.

In short, this book is a great deal of fun. The main character is Isabelle des Zephyrs, a young woman disdained by her own high-born, powerful family for both her deformed hand and her lack of magical ability. But to her scheming father, the Compte des Zephyrs, she becomes useful when she reaches marriable age and so can be a pawn to be used in the game of kings between their own nation, L’Empire Céleste, and the rival nation of Aragorth, whose ruling families have a type of mirror-magic. He arranges for her marriage to the Principe Julio of Aragorth, who might become king once his sickly father dies. The marriage is also pushed by the strange half-human, half-mechanical artifex Kantelvar, a high ranking religious official who harbours many secrets of his own.

Isabelle, abandoned and forgotten by her family once they learned she did not share the Celeste shadow-magic, whereby their shadow can suck the soul or the life out of another, has grown up more or less under the tutelage and protection of Jean-Claude, the King’s Own Musketeer who was assigned as her bodyguard at her birth by the king. As such she has been somewhat free to follow her own pursuits, including the study of mathematics and the science of flying the airships, pursuits generally frowned upon for a woman. She even goes so far as to publish mathematical treatises under a male nom de plume.

Isabelle has no choice in the arranged marriage, but she determines to see it as an escape from her cruel father and a chance to make a new start in a new land. The marriage would also bring stability to the relationship between the two nations, who are at the cusp of war. She also is granted a boon by Kantelvar: if she goes to the marriage and agrees to do all she can to promote peace between the two countries, he will restore her friend Marie, who had been turned into a bloodhollowed slave by her father many years ago in an attempt to determine if Isabelle herself had the shadow-magic and would use it to protect her friend.

But complications abound, and plots and betrayals swirl around Isabelle almost as soon as she sets off to Aragorth on the sky-ship. The only one she can truly trust is her faithful Musketeer Jean-Claude, and she is going to need all of his help to untangle the web of lies and danger that tightens around her.

I really enjoyed this book. Isabelle’s growth from solitary maiden to a woman confident of herself and her place in the world is fun to watch. The relationship between her and Jean-Claude is a touching one. I’m also really glad Craddock didn’t take the easy way out and have a romantic relationship between Isabelle and Julio spark right from the beginning. In fact, he doesn’t even make an appearance in the book until quite some time after she arrives in Aragorth…or does he?

I loved the concept of the sky ships, and I would have loved to have seen more of the implications of the setting in terms of the land being set in the sky. I also would have enjoyed seeing a little more of the steampunk influences in this world. Speaking of steampunk, I would say that the artifex Kantelvar was probably my least favourite character, simply because I thought his character could have been a little better developed and his motivations a little more robust that what Craddock gave us here.

Great writing, strong characters, twists and turns, a hint of steampunk, political intrigue and sinister magic…as I stated at the beginning, all in all An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is a  fun read. Craddock has given us a treat in this book, and I’m looking forward to reading the other two books in the Risen Kingdom series.