A Successful Elixir: A Review of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (2017)
Written by: Curtis Craddock
Genre: Fantasy/Steampunk
Pages: 409 (Kindle)
Series: Book One of The Risen Kingdoms
Publisher: Tor Books

Why I Chose It: Not being an avid follower of steampunk, this is a little bit out of my normal wheelhouse, but I couldn’t ignore when one of my favorite authors (Carol Berg) recommended her critique partner’s newly-released book.

The premise:

In a world of soaring continents and bottomless skies, where a burgeoning new science lifts skyships into the cloud-strewn heights, and ancient blood-borne sorceries cling to a fading glory, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs is about to be married to a man she has barely heard of, the second son of a dying king in an empire collapsing into civil war.

Born without the sorcery that is her birthright but with a perspicacious intellect, Isabelle believes her marriage will stave off disastrous conflict and bring her opportunity and influence. But the last two women betrothed to this prince were murdered, and a sorcerer-assassin is bent on making Isabelle the third. Aided and defended by her loyal musketeer, Jean-Claude, Isabelle plunges into a great maze of prophecy, intrigue, and betrayal, where everyone wears masks of glamour and lies. Step by dangerous step, she unravels the lies of her enemies and discovers a truth more perilous than any deception.

No Spoilers! Read freely!


Discussion: I believe it’s fair to say that worldbuilding is one of Craddock’s greatest strengths. The world Isabelle and Jean-Claude must navigate is well-developed and detailed, with a long-standing religious mythology, established politics and economics, and the resulting tendencies toward colonialism and threats of war between nations. There are technological remnants of a former high civilization, which are used by some people (mostly in the temple) but not fully understood, but there are also new scientific developments being made.

The plot was a bit slow to get moving, and though in retrospect I understand why, it nearly made me set the book aside at the time. The unusual circumstances of Isabelle’s birth are important; her alienation from her family because of her lack of hereditary magic and from commoners because of religious superstition about her physical deformity are both vital to her character; her interest in, and success with, scientific pursuits despite her “inferior” gender are likewise formative; and the abuse of her father provides both the subject of Isabelle’s greatest guilt and distraction and also the impetus behind her hasty decision to agree to a marriage arrangement. It’s all important, but it felt a bit… pedestrian, I suppose. True, the concept behind the des Zephyr family’s blood magic was unique — and horrifically implemented — but otherwise, before she left the island Isabelle could have been any number of oppressed women forged by adversity and atrocity who have found a way to carve some hidden bit of contentment from their lives.

However, once all the pieces are lined up and Isabelle left her home as the hastily affianced bride of a foreign prince, everything moved along at a nice clip. What follows is a convoluted twist of politics, court intrigue, looming war, prophecy, fanaticism, bloodlines, science, magic, and identity that would make Alexandre Dumas and George R. R. Martin proud — though the latter would have splattered far more blood.

Like the plot, I felt my appreciation for Isabelle was slow on the uptake, but once it took hold things went along swimmingly. Her intelligence came through in her quick thinking and clever solutions, whether the problem was verbal or physical; her compassion was evident in her interactions with her maids and care for those weaker than herself; and her staunch conviction to stand for peace at any cost to herself felt unique among a sea of recent fantasy warrior-princesses.

Jean-Claude was a different story entirely. I liked him right away, and never stopped. His interactions with the king (he is a King’s Musketeer, after all) are among my favorites in the book. He was a perfect support for Isabelle, and I look forward to seeing more of him as the series continues. His sense of humor, in particular, endears him to me. I do wonder about some things, though… we’ll see if my questions are answered in subsequent books.

For all its significant strengths, I believe the book’s greatest weakness actually comes from the fact that I feel like Craddock knows far, far more about this world than he has communicated in this story. This is a double-edged sword, because while it allows him to drop tantalizing tidbits about history and culture, which I unequivocally love, it also sometimes means that important points are less than clear to the reader. Unfortunately, I can’t go into more detail without some significant spoilers, but I will say that my confusion on some finer points did not blunt my overall ability to follow the plot, nor did it diminish my enjoyment of the unfolding story. But I do still wonder….

As I mentioned, steampunk is not my normal subgenre of choice, so I can’t speak to whether Craddock has done anything groundbreaking there. However, I can say that his explanations are completely relatable even to a newbie like myself, and I really liked several of the things he did with airships, floating land masses, and the related physics, and also I rather love the idea of chartstones registered and tracked by the government — for tax purposes, of course.

In Conclusion: This one was well worth my time, and probably will be worth yours, too, if anything I’ve described above piques your interest. The conclusion sits at a wonderful place for a new beginning, and I look forward to seeing how things unfold in the sequel, whenever it comes.

2 Comments

  • Lane Robins November 15, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    This looks really good to me. I’m all for a slow build up that pays off, and I will happily wallow in interesting world-building. Plus a rec from Carol Berg!

    Reply
  • pngzimmermans November 15, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    Yay a post by Betsy!

    Reply

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