I’m not sure how this book popped up on my radar, but when I saw it on NetGalley the cover at least was familiar. And obviously, if the cover was familiar, it was because someone whose opinion I trust had said this book was good. Whoever that was, thanks for the tip, because boy, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was seriously fun. My husband asked what I was reading the other night, and I told him, “This book with airships and blood magic and math. Oh, and also musketeers.” Oddly, I think it was the addition of the musketeers that made him laugh.
A polymath princess and her faithful musketeer must unravel the plot of a thousand-year-old madman in order to save an a foreign kingdom from a disastrous civil war.
Caelum is an uninhabitable gas giant like Jupiter. High above it are the Risen Kingdoms, occupying flying continents called cratons. Remnants of a shattered world, these vast disks of soaring stone may be a thousand miles across. Suspended by magic, they float in the upper layers of Caelum’s clouds.
Born with a deformed hand and utter lack of the family’s blood magic, Isabelle is despised by her cruel father. She is happy to be neglected so she can secretly pursue her illicit passion for math and science. Then, a surprising offer of an arranged royal marriage blows her life wide open and launches her and Jeane-Claude on an adventure that will take them from the Isle des Zephyrs in l’Empire Céleste to the very different Kingdom of Aragoth, where magic deals not with blood, but with mirrors.
Anyone who knows me, probably also knows that I… am not a math person. Number do not behave for me—unless, oddly, I’m multiplying. Basic addition? Definitely don’t count on me for that. Friends of mine still make fun of me for the time I added 8 + 3 and got 12. It wasn’t really until I’d started reading this book that I realized that “polymath” was literally in the blurb and I’d just sort of… glossed over it. Happily for me—and possibly for other people who are interested in reading this book—actual numbers don’t really make an appearance in this book. Instead, “polymath” seems to be code for, “incredibly smart with an interest in math, science, and natural philosophy.”
The heroine, our polymath princess Isabelle, then proceeds to demonstrate all of those things without losing either my interest or my understanding, a feat both appreciated and admired. Isabelle is a delightfully fleshed out character whose mind was fun to inhabit for a time. Of course, she isn’t without her flaws, as all well-written characters are. But those “flaws” are believable and become strong parts of her character, rather than devices the author is using to prove that his character isn’t perfect. She hesitates where others might not, she hopes—a quality that literally walks her into danger—and is less vicious than both everyone hopes she will be and than everyone around her actually is.
Isabelle is also a disabled protagonist, born with a birth defect. It’s something that colors her entire existence—but that’s mostly due to social and religious biases that are a part of the world she inhabits. She herself has learned to live with the disability and works around it, using her body the only way she knows how. Without giving away anything that would certainly ruin a plot point, there is a really nice moment when even that is taken away from her, and she’s momentarily devastated. Although the recovery from that devastation smarts a little of a deus ex machina, it also manages to still be a reasonable recovery within the world of the book, as well as setting up future schemes for subsequent books.
Like most readers, I like to try and guess at the mysteries a writer teases as I read. I think the best executed plot twists are the ones that lead the reader along at the same speed as the rest of the characters, and this book delivered on that. There were things that I started to guess at just as the Isabelle and Jean-Clause started to get suspicious too. And for the big reveals, I guessed at them within a page or two of the characters figuring it out for themselves. There was even one character who wasn’t who he said he was and I never saw it coming.
Another thing that I really liked about this book was that the romantic subplots are almost non-existent. By the time the main action of this book begins, Isabelle is 24 years old—old enough in the structure of her world that she has given up on the idea of marrying anyone. Of course, much of the plot revolves around an arranged marriage for her, and she does dream that love might blossom in that marriage, but it’s a brief dream and she returns her focus to the fact that people are trying to kill her. There is absolutely set up for romance to do some blossoming in future books, and given the characters said blossoming might happen between, I’m looking forward to seeing how it could develop.
The one hiccup in this book, for me, is the world itself. Not the cities or the religion or most of the other world-building things that make a fictional land feel like a real one, but that actual geography. The landscape of this book’s world is intriguing, yes, but doesn’t feel relevant. Airships and floating landmasses and odd wind patterns that play havoc with said airships and sometimes even those landmasses are all sort of present in the book because they’re facts of life for the people who live there—but you could probably swap out airships with real ships and put those landmasses in the ocean and nothing structurally would change. The history of how those landmasses came to be is hinted at, both in the blurb above and within the book itself, but it doesn’t play an integral part in anything. Maybe this is something the author is working towards, since we do get those hints, but from just the one book it seems like an unnecessary “coolness” device.
All that being said, I’m really excited for the next book in this series. The love story that has the potential to play a larger role in future books is with a character that we didn’t get to learn nearly enough about, but who still managed to make me like him almost instantly. Not to mention the political ramifications of this book’s plot on future plot lines. I do hope that we get a little more about the world itself, but since it seemed like the author was setting that up anyway, I’m not worried. Who knows what Isabelle and Jean-Claude are going to do next time?
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is written by Curtis Craddock and will be published by Tor Books on August 29, 2017. It is the first book in the Risen Kingdoms series.
Polymath is one of those words that puzzled me for ages, because its context never seemed to be about (just) mathematics. I think I assumed it was a relatively new coinage. At some point, I actually looked it up! From mirriam-webster.com: “Definition of polymath :a person of encyclopedic learning.”
The first sentence of Wikipedia’s entry says it even better, I think: “A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”) is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.”
I always get a word-nerd thrill when I’m able to work it into a conversation. 🙂