Review: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

Series: The Risen Kingdoms: #1

Well that was delightful. One of the reasons I’m really glad for the 2021 Book Bingo. I don’t know when/if I would have found this book, if not for that, and I really quite enjoyed it. It’s got great steampunky worldbuilding (with some hints of body horror I honestly feel steampunk should probably have more of), royal/courtly intrigue, wonderful characters, and some delightful writing (with a French twist to the word choices that I don’t see much of). Well worth the read and I’m absolutely going to see where this story goes next.

Vaguely spoilerly warning: There are a number of moments leaning of body horror through this book, especially towards the end. It’s not a huge part of the overall plot, but if that’s something that bothers you, this may not be the book for you.

Worldbuildingwise, it starts right from the beginning. A world built on flying islands with the main method of travel being skyships?

A vast downward-pointing cone of rock bristling with an upside-down forest of salt-encrusted, aether-emitting cloud-choral stalactites that kept the Skyland aloft.

Tricorner hats? A family with magical shadows that can eat the shadow right out from their enemies–potentially creating soulless magical slaves? So delightful. And then as you get deeper, you run into priests that show devotion by replacing limbs (and even more) with magical steampunk artifacts, even more magical families (the other main one can send their reflection through mirrors all around the world).

“You lost your hat’s reflection. When next you stand before a mirror with your hat on you will feel it on your head but not see it in your reflection.”

It’s just a crazy amount of creativity and it all somehow manages to fit together. Now I really want to know more–about the priests and about the other magical families at the very least.

On top of that, there’s a distinct Imperial/Victorian era French influence to a lot of the world, with royal families; a mix of gunpowder, bombs, and swords; royal musketeers (more on that later); and especially naming conventions. It’s just not something I’d seen much of before and really stood out (in a good way).

Characterwise, the two main points of view really shine. The main protagonist–Isabelle–is born with both a deformed hand (a single ‘worm finger’, which is an odd turn of phrase, but works I suppose) and a lack of the bloodline magic she should have as part of her family. Either one should have been enough to have her killed at birth, but in swoops royal musketeer (and second point of view) Jeane-Claude, who’s delightfully ‘musketeer’ and dedicated to Isabelle to a fault to save her life. Isabelle grows up in a world where the main worth of women is to be pretty and bear bloodline-preserving children, but of course she’s having none of that, instead growing up with a keen analytical mind, secretly posting mathematical proofs and otherwise SCIENCE’ing her way through life. She’s wonderful and certainly a badass. I look forward to more of the both of them.

“I am already malformed and unhallowed; being male is a handicap I can live without. Besides, I would much rather be in the business of appointing wonderful officers than be one.”

Even better than either alone, there are the interactions between the two of them:

“Because the world is full of men who think that Her Highness Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs, cousin once removed to Grand Leon, should have more fingers and less intelligence. They think she should be beautiful, brainless, beatific—”

“Boring,” Isabelle supplied. “Barmy.”

Jean-Claude smiled down at her fondly. “And a bounty of other brevities beginning with ‘B.’ Yes. Fortunately for you, I find their arguments unconvincing.”

And finally, the writing. Oh the writing. On top of the French influence, the descriptions are just so wonderfully steampunk:

There was the analogical multi-switch whirring away, and the cryodynamic manifold hissing softly. The actual algorithmic engine of the device seemed to be intact. All those delicate pieces; the explosion just hadn’t been that powerful.

Overall… as I mentioned, it’s an absolute delight of a find. I can only hope that the sequels are a fraction as good. This book needs far more attention than it’s been given.

“Alas, there are no happy endings, only interesting middles,” Jean-Claude said. “As for your marriage, the Aragoths made you a promise. I intend to see that they keep it.”