MASKS by E. C. Blake
jacket flap blurb
Masks, the first novel in a mesmerizing new fantasy series, draws readers into a world in which cataclysmic events have left the Autarchy of Aygrima—the one land blessed with magical resources—cut off from its former trading partners across the waters, not knowing if any of those distant peoples still live.
Yet under the rule of the Autarch, Aygrima survives. And thanks to the creation of the Masks and the vigilance of the Autarch’s Watchers, no one can threaten the security of the empire.
In Aygrima, magic is a Gift possessed from birth by a very small percentage of the population, with the Autarch himself the most powerful magic worker of all. Only the long-vanquished Lady of Pain and Fire had been able to challenge his rule.
At the age of fifteen, citizens are recognized as adults and must don the spell-infused Masks—which denote both status and profession‚ whenever they are in public. To maintain the secure rule of the kingdom, the Masks are magically crafted to reveal any treasonous thoughts of actions. And once such betrayals are exposed, the Watchers are there to enforce the law.
Mara Holdfast, daughter of the Autarch’s Master Maskmaker, is fast approaching her fifteenth birthday and her all0important Masking ceremony. Her father himself has been working behind closed doors to create Mara’s Mask. Once the ceremony is done, she will take her place as an adult, and Gifted with the same magical abilities as her father, she will also claim her rightful place as his apprentice.
But on the day of her Masking something goes horribly wrong, and instead of celebrating, Mara is torn away from her parents, imprisoned, and consigned to a wagon bound for the mines. It is because she didn’t turn in the unMasked boy she discovered over to the Night Watchers? Or is it because she’s lied about her Gift, claiming she can only see one color of magic, when in truth she can see them all, just as she could when she was a young child?
Whatever the reason, her Mask has labeled her a traitor and now she has lost everything, doomed to slavering in the mines until she dies. Not even Mara’s Gift can show her the future that awaits her—a future that may see her freed to aid a rebel cause, forced to become a puppet of the Autarch, or transformed into a force as dangerous to her world as the legendary Lady of Pain and Fire.
The idea of magic as a natural resource rather than an all-present force is interesting, and so are the Masks, which is the main reason I picked up the book. Unfortunately, the book is, in a word, predictable. I’m not sure if there was just too much foreshadowing or something, but the book never had me wondering what would happen next. I felt like I already knew. The addictiveness of magic is very interesting, and the only non-predicable part of the book. If I were going to continue with the series, it would be the reason why.
Predictability aside, there were other issues. Mara is a fairly naïve protagonist, and that could have been played up more. The prologue is unnecessary, pointless, and dull, and should definitely be cut. Mara and Katia’s names don’t fit with the established theme. The love triangle was a tiny part, but still too large. I think it would be better of if that particular subplot was cut. The characters can be kept, of course, but the love triangle was aggravating and mundane.
I didn’t understand Mara’s need to save Katia. I felt like I could almost understand, but then the fact that it was overwhelmingly for plot reasons pulled me back out. This could be fixed if Mara is shown to be even more dependent on Katia’s kindness, perhaps even feeling like she owes Katia her life, or sanity, or both. Or it could go another way, where Mara develops a crush on Katia, and thinks that saving her from the situation will save her from herself. Either way would strengthen the story.
Another thing that would improve the book was if the Autarch was less obviously the bad guy. Especially at the beginning, when Mara believes the Autarch is a good guy. One thing that would help, of course, if cutting the prologue, which shows the Autarch as bad and the Lady of Pain and Fire as good. Since I know the Lady of Pain and Fire is good, Mara’s fears of turning into a monster like the Lady of Pain and Fire seem unfounded, pointless, and eye-rolling. It defeats the fear of turning into a monster at all.
If the Autarch did things that were quite clearly benevolent, that would help, too. No one is pure evil or pure good. Yes, the Autarch is an addict, but so what? In his own mind, maybe he realizes he’s doing something bad, and thinks that doing good things will balance it out.
If I were writing the book, I’d start it out with someone Mara knows, such as Sala’s mother or father, being accused of a crime. I say Sala’s parents because if Mara had more connection to her current world in the capitol beyond her own family, that would be a plus. It would make her eventual ties to the rebellion that much more nerve-racking.
But anyway, the crime. Obviously, Sala’s parent is innocent (I’m going to say her father, just because). But the trial is overflowing with circumstantial evidence, and Sala’s father has no real alibi, and its looking like he might be unMasked and thrown to the criminal work camps despite his innocence. Mara and Sala are desperate to find a way to keep Sala’s father from being unjustly unMasked, and eventually Mara decides to write a letter straight to the Autarch (in this story, Mara knows that the Autarch is not all-seeing, but more like the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt—all-powerful and all-important, but someone who leaves day to day comings and goings in the hands of underlings).
The Autarch, being the benevolent individual that he likes to believe he is, replies by sending a High Justice or something (however the system in Aygrima works. Something like a Head Healer but for judges) to inspect and oversee the trial. The High Justice evaluates the evidence and pronounces it circumstantial and thus not solid proof. He writes back to the Autarch and launches his own investigation, which quickly uncovers the truth with the aid of Gifted Watchers. And with that, Sala’s father is saved by the kindness of the Autarch himself, who possibly even attends the trial.
Something like this would, of course, extend the period of time before Mara’s Masking. But I think it would be worth it. Clear cut black and white is bland, particularly when the protagonist doesn’t see it. If Mara initially believes in the Autarch’s goodness, than the audience needs to, as well. And that means something has to happen to prove to Mara, and the audience, that the Autarch is, indeed, good.
It would also be beneficial if the non-rebel bandit groups played a bigger part, and if they were played up as an enemy. If they attacked outlaying towns, or attempted to attack, and were fought off by the Watchers. Another thing that would be good is if there were other cities, and Mara did not live in the capitol. See, in the book, there is one city, which is the capitol, and the rest of Aygrima is towns. While this is not in-of-itself believable, it means Mara lives in close proximity to the Autarch. His kindness in the case of my imaginary trial and his attendance of Gifted Maskings in the book would be more interesting if he were father away and some travel was involved.
More cities is not the only answer. If the capitol had two sections, a walled-off center and the area where the common citizens live, that would possibly work as well. In the book, this is what may be the case, but I’m not sure. There wasn’t very much about it, perhaps a line somewhere, and I didn’t understand if the center was walled off or if there was just a palace or castle there. It sort of sounded like a castle/palace.
Other changes I would make: Mara and Ethelda. In the end, I never understood why Ethelda was present at Mara’s Masking, if she never attended Maskings. I could understand, in the end, why the Autarch didn’t show up, but why was Ethelda there instead of the Healer that was usually present? In my understanding, it was for plot reasons—which is the rationale for a lot of things that happen. Ethelda is there because she’s a main character that needs to have some connection to Mara. Ethelda is there because Mara has to have an unscarred face in order for A) Grute’s plan and B) the continuous fear that she will be raped because of her rare, unscarred face.
If my trial changes were put into place, than perhaps Sala’s father is beaten by angry citizens who believe he committed the crime (something like child murder or something that would rile people up). Because Mara’s father is friends with Ethelda, she comes in to heal Sala’s father from the injuries, and this is where Mara and Ethelda initially meet.
But if Ethelda is not at Mara’s Masking, then she would scarred. Unless she still has one of the rare Healers who can actually heal her face completely. The thing is, while characters say an unscarred face is rare rather than unheard of, there is absolutely no evidence of any other unscarred unMasked whatsoever. Which leaves me to believe that an unscarred face is said to be rare to make it less protagonist-luck-y that Mara ends up unscarred.
There are a couple ways to fix this. One, show other unscarred unMasked in the camps. Or two, make Mara special. Go full out. Maybe her father, the Maskmaker who made her Mask, designed it to fail without badly injuring Mara, and thus even a substandard Healer would be enough to leave Mara scarless. Or, even better, Mara’s father designed it to fail without the subsequent injuring leaving an ugly scar. If Mara was described as very beautiful to begin with, than a faint, flower/snowflake-shaped scar would still leave her exceptional and desirable. If I was writing it, I’d probably go with the interesting-scar angle rather than the unscarred one.
rating out of five stars
Lots of potential, but currently disappointing.
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