I don’t plan to do a lot of reviews, but when I have a book to talk about, I like to do it. Maybe some people will be interested. If not, just my opinion. TL;DR of this book for me: I was disappointed. Sounded awesome, but I hated the character I was clearly supposed to like.
I found this book on Twitter (best place to find books?) on or around release day and was pretty interested by the marketing. It looks fun, it has a diverse cast, and the plotline sounded like a common arc that I typically enjoy: commoner (often thief) tries to reclaim the money/power they were denied because of their poverty only to discover they are the key to saving everyone they care about from a much greater evil than the general “bad society is bad” issues. My problem is, that wasn’t this story. It was marketed that way, but that’s not what happens and as a result I ended up very, very frustrated by this book.
I’m a big fan of evaluating why I don’t like things. Not to harp on what I thought was bad, but simply because it informs me (and anyone I’m talking to) about what things interest me and why. That helps contextualize my opinions and lets other people know whether they are likely to feel the same way or not. So let’s take a look at this book from beginning to end. First, this absolutely gorgeous cover:
Wow. Just wow. I love that thing. Also, let me start off with, in case you don’t agree with my opinions and want to read this book, here’s a link to Amazon where you can buy it: The Mask of Mirrors
If you click on that link, you’ll see the marketing copy, which is presented in a style that mirrors the book’s theme. I love that. It is so fun. And that marketing copy tells us that our main character is a former thief and current con artist, but “… if [Ren] cannot sort the truth from the lies, it will mean the destruction of all her worlds.” Awesome hook. I would love to see how this plays out.
To be fair to all this impressive marketing, though… “M.A. Carrick” is a pen name for the co-author partnership between Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms and the book is published by Orbit. This is what traditional publishers are good at and they do know their business.
The Let Down
This is where my talk of promises comes in. This marketing tells a particular story. It tells me that my main character is someone who overcame great hardship, who enters the book timeline in a selfish state, and who exits the book timeline having changed substantially to focus her efforts more on the greater good. The marketing promises that by the end of this book, Ren will have learned to focus on protecting people in a more general sense and will try to make things better.
But she doesn’t.
At no point in this book did I feel like Ren had decided to prioritize anyone or anything over her personal goals. She also faced no repercussions for her consistent deceptions. There were exactly two times that she was forced to admit the extent of her lies, and neither ended up mattering to the larger picture of the plot. It served as a moment to make her feel uncomfortable, but not as a moment of genuine character development. After both instances, when given the chance to do so, she maintained her lies and even built new ones. This was even more pronounced when Ren felt bad about lying, as started happening after the first person died to save her. I know I never feel bad about my own lies until someone I have fundamentally deceived and taken advantage of for months ends up dying in an effort to save my life. That’s normal, right? But this new “Gee, I feel bad about this lie because the person who died to save me was really angry that I did this” attitude never made her decide not to lie to that person’s family and friends for the rest of the book. Oh, no. If she did that, she might not get the money she came for.
I can’t connect with a character who never acknowledges they’ve made a mistake.
The Other Characters
Now, completely honestly, I’m probably being a little overly harsh about Ren. There’s a reason for that. This book had five primary POV characters (and a scattering of one-off secondary POVs), and Ren was the only character who never once thought of the greater good. Even her friend, who was part of the con and was acting as her maid, seemed more concerned with the general well-being of the people around them than Ren. As a result, the fact that Ren’s arc is probably a multi-book arc makes her feel really, really self-centered compared to the others.
What was particularly frustrating, though, was the way Ren’s self-centered goals interacted with everyone else’s less self-centered goals.
Here’s a couple of examples of the other characters:
- The nice aristocratic family. Ren came to town to fleece this family because she had some connection to a disowned relative. They are consistently presented as nice people, you are told at the very beginning of the book that they are “poor” for aristocrats, and Ren has no idea of this. Through the course of the book, as Ren learns more about them, her opinion shifts from “They’re super stingy” to “Oh, I heard they’re poor, must mean they only have half the absurd wealth as everyone else in the aristocracy.” I’m not saying she should feel sorry for the rich people, but when their POVs tell us how much they are genuinely struggling and how they are trying to retain some power so as to minimize the general corruption, these attitudes just make her sound mean.
- The landlord. This is a complicated character (and my favorite, actually), so I’ll just go with this. On multiple occasions he engages in discussions with Ren for dual purposes. To show her around and to convince her to advocate a contract for him, to see if she’s okay and to try and convince her to share her secrets. During none of these discussions does Ren catch on to what he’s doing, and that makes her look stupid. Now, she isn’t stupid (she’s actually relatively smart), but this coupled with her tendency to make guesses that turn out to be consistently wrong make her instincts really feel unreliable. Thus, when the end of the book revolves around her realizing a big secret having to do with her landlord… I kinda feel like the second book should tell us she was wrong. Furthermore, since she told someone else about her certainty of this “Bad Thing” related to the landlord, there should be a massive conflict in the second book around this landlord getting blamed for something he didn’t do, all because Ren screwed up again.
- The guard. Another complicated character, except he shouldn’t be. I am confident that the resolution tells us this guard knew something by mid book that his actions at the time directly contradict him knowing. For specifics I would have to go into spoilers and I don’t really want to (mostly because I don’t want to…I’m a firm believer that knowing the ending can only make a good book better). But this is the one character that I don’t have a problem with the Ren interaction. The character was wildly inconsistent, but the interaction with Ren was fine. As long as you remember that Ren is a lifelong criminal who is terrified of getting caught by law enforcement and this guy is the law enforcement sacrificing his personal desires to try and help his people. You know…As long as you remember that Ren should be the bad guy here, their interaction was reasonable.
By the end of this book, I was convinced that half the problems the book was highlighting were caused by Ren lying to the wrong people about the wrong things. If the other characters had known what she knew, the entire course of the book would have been wildly different. The problem was that the nice aristocratic family had no idea there was corruption dealing with the slums, the landlord who had slum connections had no idea the movements of the aristocrats in the slums, and the guard only ever got anonymous warnings that were so vague he could barely act on them. Ren was the lynch-pin, she knew everything, and her inherent dishonesty killed a bunch of people and endangered the entire city (possibly world) because she was concerned that her “allies” might not give her money if they found out how she knew things. And then, at the end, when everything had been resolved somewhat (it’s a series, so there’s a sequel hook), the book told me that one of these characters who seemed genuinely more driven to resolve issues was a villain.
That character was the one fixing all the things that went wrong because Ren lied to everyone! Did that person have their own goals, sure, but so did everyone. You can’t tell me Ren, with her constant “But if they learn that, they’ll discover me and I won’t get my money” obsession was more altruistic. She never once risked revealing her lies to anyone unless she genuinely thought she was going to die if she didn’t. The other character risked almost died twice just trying to save the city. Partially that happened because it’s hard to rule a city that’s been destroyed, but it was also partially out of base instinct. People with the base instinct to try and save lives aren’t typically presented as villains…
But ultimately, that was the problem with this book for me. It was fine. I thought it was going to be great. And then it shoved a character at me who I was supposed to root for who never did anything to help others and it tried to vilify people who risked themselves to try and help others.
This was such a cool concept. I wish I liked the book. Maybe others will.