This review is for the rewritten Masques.
The Premise: Aralorn is a mercenary who "doesn't take orders" and "will occasionally listen to suggestions" which makes her ideal as a spy for the city of Sianim. Her latest assignment is to check out rumors of an assassination attempt on the ae'Magi, the much beloved Archmage of the land. It isn't until she is at his castle does she realize that the ae'Magi is not the good, kind man the world thinks he is. He's pure evil, but his influence over people's hearts makes any opposition near impossible. The only people who realize the true nature of the ae'Magi are persecuted by him. These include Wolf, a grey beast with yellow eyes who can speak, the young King Myr of Reth, and a small but growing group of rebels hiding in the Northern Woods.
My Thoughts: This book begins with an introduction by the author which explains that Masques was a book she started in college when she knew nothing about writing. This means that in looking at it again as a more experienced writer, there was a lot of "squirming uncomfortably" and the first attempt at a rewrite was so extensive that it changed the story completely. So this edition of Masques is a compromise: it keeps the original story but makes things fit better, leaving the "cliches and oddities" intact.
I kept Briggs' introduction in the back of my mind while reading the book, and I can see what she alludes to as the "cliches and oddities" in her story. Yes, there are a lot of things in Masques that feel very familiar. Aralorn's background alone made me wonder if I'd read Masques before: the plain-looking lord's daughter, more interested in swordplay than etiquette, runs away from home with her warhorse and joins a mercenary guild. Her shapeshifter bloodline and quick wits keep her alive, and along the way she gains a wolf companion. Add to this the evil sorcerer in his castle, a scarred hero, an army of mindless minions, a spymaster, a dragon, and magic items, and you have a rather common set of tropes. Yet I never felt that these things were trite. Instead I felt like I was reading a story where the plot had a charming enthusiasm, while the writing itself was polished by experience.
I didn't think the polish covered all flaws, but there were qualities in this story that reminded me of what lured me into the fantasy genre during the nineties, and that was worlds I wanted to visit. I really enjoyed the settings, particularly the fantastic rooms described in the story. I loved imagining the secret places these characters went and the grand palace that the ae'Magi lived in. I also liked the idea of the green versus human magics, and how shapeshifters and magical creatures fit into this. The explanation of how the magic works could have been better, but there was still a sense of wonder while reading about magical creatures and old stories that I enjoyed.
There's a lot thrown into the 294 pages that was this book, but story is essentially a good versus evil tale. After Aralorn discovers the true nature of the ae'Magi, King Myr of Reth has to flee his palace, leaving his throne open for the ae'Magi to usurp. Aralorn and Wolf join him in the Northlands. Here, the power of human magics like the ae'Magi's are not as affective, but green magic, the magic of Aralorn's shapeshifter people, have no problems. A ragtag band of people impervious to the ae'Magi's magical influence trickle into the hidden camp, called my some unknown power. Together they begin to work out how to overthrow the ae'Magi.
There are a few secondary characters within this rebel camp, but besides King Myr and the ae'Magi (who were very good and very evil respectively), no one really made much of an impact on me. The focus is primarily on the two heroes (Wolf and Aralorn) and they stood out while others faded into the background. I found myself uninterested in the camp's day-to-day life and more drawn in by Aralorn and her relationship with the the enigmatic Wolf.
Although I feel like Aralorn is the main character, Wolf steals the show. Aralorn rescued him from a pit trap, and over the years he's slowly revealed more about himself, including the fact that he's not just a wolf. He's your basic scarred hero, but he and Aralorn have developed a bond which has become something more for them both. I loved reading about his past and their conversations while they researched spells in Wolf's private library (I wish this library was real). Aralorn is a good match for his prickliness because she can cheerfully ignore it, and she uses her humor to chip away at his shell. As you can imagine, this is the set up for a romance. I was expecting something slow moving from the way the book began, but the complications I thought I'd see were superficial ones. It was sweet but not intense. I am looking forward to reading the second book to see how their romance continues and I hope to see better developed secondary characters that play a larger role in the plot.
Overall: Masques is a little bit dated because it's a book originally written in the nineties, but it has a lot of charm. It reminds me of books about female heroines having adventures written by Robin McKinley and Mercedes Lackey that I read in my teens and still hold a fondness for today. It has its flaws but it also has charisma, and it kept me pleasantly entertained for the few hours it took me to read it. I think would do well with YA readers interested fantasy, particularly girls.
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Dear Author - C
(This review was cross-posted to the paperbackswap blog)