Title: Masks (Book 1 of The Masks of Aygrima)
Author: E. C. Blake
Genre: Fantasy (Sword and Sorcery with a smidgen of Dystopian)
In Aygrima, every adult wears an enchanted mask as a symbol of loyalty to their ruler, the all-powerful Autarch. Any treachery, and the mask will shatter. For 15-year-old Mara Holdfast, donning the mask means she's finally ready to learn to use her Gift of magic and follow in her father's footsteps. It is the crowning moment of her young life.
And then it all goes horribly wrong.
Maybe she shouldn't have lied on her test, saying she saw only the coppery-red strands of magic when in fact the whole spectrum of the rainbow was laid out before her. Maybe she should have turned in that lunatic boy she found in the basement, the one ranting about an unMasked army. Whatever the reason, Mara is ripped from her home. Friendless and afraid, she'll need to rely on her budding magic if she wants to survive. But if she can't control it, she may find herself facing a fate worse than death.
The first chapter is a little choppy, skipping from Mara age 6 to Mara age 13 via a series of scene cuts. But once Mara comes of age, Masks settles into its rhythm and reads quite smoothly. Between the mystery of why Mara's masking went so horribly wrong and a series of action-packed plot twists, I found the book hard to put down. (In fact, I didn't; I finished most of the book in one sitting.) The ending nicely wrapped up the whole story, while still leaving enough of a sequel hook to make me want to read the next book in the trilogy.
One of the reasons the book is so compelling is that Mara, its central character, faces danger constantly, sometimes due to circumstances, sometimes due to her own choices. With every challenge she meets, she grows. Over the course of the book, Mara goes from blissfully ignorant to aware of the injustice in her society to passionate about saving the innocent. Unlike most novels, where the hero's idealism triumphs over evil, Mara stumbles, makes mistakes, and, in some cases, screws things up pretty badly. This saves both the plot and the character from being too predictable.
The book gets dark at times. Supporting characters meet horrible fates right as you start to get to know them. Rape looms in the background and actually happens to one character, though the reader does not see the act itself. The material isn't graphic, but it is intense.
I bought this book because the concept of a society filled with masked men and women intrigued me, and I wanted to know more of how the magic worked. While the masks played a central role in the plot, a few points about how their magic worked remained foggy. For instance, masks shatter when put on the face of a "bad person," but how exactly does it define "bad?" From what I can tell, child molesters and rapists were tolerated at least some of the time.
On the whole, Masks is a fast-paced, solid fantasy with plenty of twists and turns and a main character you can root for. I enjoyed it and I'm interested in reading the sequel.
Normally, I rant about things I like or dislike about a story, and whether anyone else shares my opinion, at least I know how I feel. For this rant, though, which is about realism in fantasy, I'm not sure what conclusion to draw. Can fantasy be realistic? Should it be?
But let me start from the beginning.
Mara often points out during the course of her adventure, that certain things don't happen to her like they do "in stories." Since Mara has never been established as being a great reader or as a person with a highly idealized notion of life, I can only assume this is EC Blake taking a dig at unrealistic tropes and cliches of fantasy novels. And so we have horses which are a pain to ride, characters who frequently need bathroom breaks, and the climatic rescue scene that fails horrifically.
I appreciate these variations. But for all that, I did not see Masks as realistic.
Considering all the danger Mara goes through, she escapes more or less unharmed. When her mask breaks, she has a master healer to take away her scars. When she finds herself in the grip of a rapist, he puts off the deed until she's in the perfect position to defend herself. When she finds herself in a den of rapists, the boss finds an excuse to keep her from being their play thing. When she passes out in that same den, they put her in the hospital and leave her alone.
Don't get me wrong; I'm glad she was never raped. It just seemed like the universe was conspiring a little too much to keep her safe. The most obvious incident happened at the end. Mara, facing unbearable guilt, contemplates suicide. But before she can enact the deed, one of her friends, who had been healthy before, stumbles in, bleeding, dying, with no one to help her. It's up to Mara to heal her, and, in so doing, eases her conscience.
The other major roadblock I had was Mara's magic, more specifically, how powerful it became.
In this world, many people can't even see magic, let alone use it. Those who can, usually see it as one color. They can use it for one purpose (like healing) and must harvest it in limited quantities from a black stone. Mara, on the other hand, can see all spectrums of the rainbow, use magic for almost any purpose she wants, and draw it out of people's life force. It's a power that dwarfs even the Autarch, the supposedly all-powerful ruler.
This makes it clear, whatever fantasy tropes EC Blake meant to avoid, he hit the greatest one smack on the head. Mara is, for better or worse, "the chosen one."
But is that a bad thing?
I enjoyed the book. If Mara hadn't been constantly in danger, I would have been bored. If she had been raped, I'd have been devastated. I might not like that Mara has so much power, but if she had no magic at all, it might not have been as much fun. The whole purpose of a fantasy novel is to enjoy a world with no possibilities. How much realism do we really want to swallow?