Monday, April 4, 2016
I love when books cater specifically to my tastes. Lately, I've been wishing for more mysteries set in fantasy worlds. Then, suddenly, I see this beautiful cover on Amazon, and find Masque by W.R. Gingell, an ebook (currently free) that's a fantasy, a murder mystery, and a fairy tale retelling. Specifically, "Beauty and the Beast". Watching Beauty and her Beast solve a mystery together? I could not buy this book fast enough.
Even so, I kept my expectations tempered. Fairy tale retellings, though they're one of my favorite genres, are often not great literature. Independently published fairy tale retellings are often especially amateurish, with thinly drawn settings and characters, as though simply throwing in the right symbols and plot points should be enough to satisfy the reader. I expected, at best, for Masque to be a faintly drawn fantasy, with vaguely pleasant characters and just enough plot to keep me motivated to reach the last page.
Masque blew away all my expectations. This isn't just a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling. It's a unique book, with a rich world, well-developed characters, and a plot that draws inspiration from the original fairy tale, but otherwise spins an original, unpredictable story.
Masque is the story of Lady Isabella Farrah, an ambassador from New Civet to the larger country of Glause. At a masked ball, she meets Lord Pecus, a man famous for always hiding his cursed face beneath a magical mask. She convinces him to reveal his true face to her, leading to one of the best "Beauty meets the Beast" reactions I've ever read.
"I've seen uglier," I said coolly. "Lord Morsten, for instance. He has very unpleasant eyes, and of course he has nothing like the splendid facial hair that you do. I don't tend to look for beauty in faces."
"I suppose you'll tell me that beauty is found inwardly, and that you never look at appearances."
"No, my lord. I tend to look more at shoulders."
After you've read a few "Beauty and the Beast" retellings, it's refreshing to find a version of this scene that isn't "terrified heroine can barely stand to look at his hideous face". It's a sign that this isn't going to be a lazy retelling.
Isabella is more disturbed by Lord Pecus' appearance than she lets on, but she doesn't have time to dwell on this, because before the night ends, she stumbles upon the body of a close friend who was murdered by magical means. Lord Pecus, as the head of the Watch (think magical Scotland Yard), is called in to investigate. Isabella wants justice for her friend and conducts her own investigation while hiding her amateur efforts from Lord Pecus, who would prefer that she remain safely out of the way. The Beauty and her Beast work together and against each other, hunting for clues and dodging danger until the culprit is finally unmasked. Of course, along the way, they learn more about each other, fall in love, and break the beastly curse.
The characters are the best part of this book. Isabella is a self-assured, clever, witty and charming diplomat who shrewdly navigates court politics and crime-solving. Lord Pecus is more stoic, but is Isabella's intellectual equal, and their personalities spark beautifully off each other. Melchior, the king-consort of Isabella's country, has a warm, brotherly relationship with Isabella (complete with teasing), and Delysia offers comic relief. There's a sense of history to both of these relationships, making it easy to believe that these are real people who have lives even when they're not "on-screen". There are also a couple of mischievous orphans, a lively cavalry regiment, a cunning king, a loose-cannon of a sister, and several other characters with memorable personalities. Since I read mysteries for the characters more than the plot, I was a very happy reader.
The writing style is wonderful, especially the humor. I laughed out-loud several times, and the book had a constant stream of wit, a sort of sparkling good-nature that lightened even the gorier segments.
The world very detailed. The author slowly doles out information about nations, politics, history, cultures, climate, plants, animals, militaries, and the magic system that is intriguing and well thought-out. It felt less like a novel written about a fantasy world, and more like a novel written within a fantasy world--like how Jane Austen books contain casual references to barouches that the reader was expected to understand.
This made the book difficult to understand at times; while I appreciated the slow discovery of details about the world, I often wished the writer would take "Show, Don't Tell" less seriously, and throw in little info-dumps to clear up confusion. Masque contained so many references to past adventures of the characters and unexplained world-building details that I often wondered if I'd missed an earlier book. However, though this book is billed as #2 in the Two Monarchies sequence, the first book apparently takes place several centuries before this one and doesn't affect this plot. I appreciated the sense of a "lived-in" world, with happenings outside the pages, but it did cause some confusion. I also found the magic system confusing at times; it's fascinating and nuanced, but the ever-expanding array of abilities and details were hard to keep straight at times, and the rules were sometimes confusing.
The plot was a steady stream of excitement, but the ending was slightly weaker. I figured out the villain partway through the book, though we didn't receive the information necessary to deduce the motive or method until much later. The method of defeating the villain seemed to run contrary to the rules set up earlier, which confused me. I also found the resolution to the romance too abrupt, because we received so little information about the curse placed upon the Beast. I knew nothing about the reason for the curse, or the rules behind the curse, and the ending gave us only the barest of details, which softened the sense of triumph over breaking the curse. This was only a slight disappointment, however, after an otherwise strong book.
I went into Masque expecting a bare-bones, forgettable fairy tale retelling. Instead, I found a memorable, fascinating book with style, wit, intelligence and amazing characters. This is definitely in my top tier of fairy tale retellings, and I look forward to more books set in this universe.
If it sounds at all interesting, the book is still free on Amazon. Here's the link. I'm guessing it will remain so until the end of the month, but no guarantees. I would gladly have paid money for it, as it's better than many traditionally published fairy tale retellings I've read. Definitely recommended.