An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock

In a year of strong debuts by fantasy writers, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock may be the best. Craddock can write. His characters are strong, the worldbuilding is fantastic, and the plot carries you forward with twists, turns and surprises all along the way. Kingdoms made up of islands in the skies, crossed by ships that sail through the air make an exciting setting.

Isabelle des Zephyrs is cousin to King Leon of L’Empire Celeste, but is still a disappointment to her father, the Comte des Zephyrs for her inability to manifest the magic of her family line and for being born with a malformed hand, which marks her as unclean. She grows up under the protection of the King’s Musketeer, Jean-Claude, who is her surrogate father, spy, friend and confidant. Self described as “...His Majesty’s sheepdog. I wander around distant fields, stick my nose in other people’s privates, and growl at curs.”

In a world where women are forbidden the sciences, Isabelle has the misfortune of being brilliant. Her love and skill with math and philosophy must be concealed on pain of death. When deliverance arrives in the form of a marriage to a foreign prince arranged by a clockwork man, the artifex Kantelvar, Isabelle takes it. The marriage offers her both an escape from her tyrant of a father and a hope to be useful in preventing the kingdom of Aragoth from descending into war as the current king is close to death.

The nod to French and Spanish romanticism enhances the setting as Isabelle plunges into intrigue filled with plots, assassination attempts and a world poised on the brink of war. The heart of the novel is Isabelle and Jean-Claude’s fierce loyalty to each other. They are motivated to do their duty as much as they are motivated not to be a disappointment in each other’s eyes. Isabelle sees her duty “ be the place where fear and panic stopped, to pin down one corner of reality so that disaster did not blow all civilization away, like a loose sail.” Jean-Claude chooses to seek out and dispense with threats to Isabelle before they reach her. “The only true justice is in the crime that is foiled before it is committed. That twisted thing the law calls justice is little more than revenge by committee.”

Magic and science stand side by side in this story. In a world where women face cruel discrimination and blame, the female characters are uniformly strong. Crackling dialogue, sly humor and convincing intrigue make for a great read. Sign me up for more adventures in The Risen Kingdoms. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive a copy of this book from the publisher.
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