Pleasant Spice to a Familiar Spirit
It’s been said that fantasy set in pseudo-European settings is dead, that George RR Martin killed what Tolkien spawned, and that to get a fresh take on fantasy (or more diverse voices represented) we need to get out of European-inspired settings, to places like the worlds of Ken Liu or N.K. Jemisin. I’m generally on board with this—which is why An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was such a surprise.
Not the only reason, but I’ll get to that. First, see how debut author Curtis Craddock sets European influence aflight: by fast-forwarding from the iron age to a baroque period of elaborate costumes and blackpowder rifles. By making good use of existing languages for much-less-awkward-and-more-understandable in-world magical terms (see espejo instead of bloodmagic or some such). And most of all, for ripping European duchies off the face of the planet and sending them spinning high into the atmosphere, replete with airships to traverse them and a fully-imagined alternate science to explain them.
So his setting’s awesome. But what about the characters? The story? Yes and yes. Our main relationship here is not two lovers or brothers or even the father-son thing you often find in more staid fantasy, but instead a wandering musketeer who takes a protective air to a clever princess born without magic and therefore unwanted. Their relationship never strays to either familial or romantic, but keeps a sweet middle course between teacher and student, protector and protected, and best of friends. In the course of it, Craddock’s eye for human nature shines, both main characters acting out loveable quirks, areas of expertise and foolishness, and endearing moral dilemmas.
The story, too, is one more of politics and intrigue than violence and bloodshed, with a spot of religious destiny thrown in, distinguishing Alchemy from many of its fantastical contemporaries. While the twists and turns of secret identities and shifting political alliances at times require more concentration than the average reader might want to put forth, Craddock’s snappy dialogue and great cast of side characters keep the prose enjoyable.
The only thing we struggled with was pacing--Alchemy has long chapters, and the political twists and turns occasionally don’t feel worth the amount of space and dialogue they occupy. Still, these are more than made up for with the richness of Craddock’s world and characters—a whipping boy disguised as a prince, a religious necromancer in love with a dead goddess, ancient alchemical machineries, and a plucky girl with a wormfinger. If you every wondered what Captain Jack Sparrow would do with airships and a female consort he wasn’t wooing, and thought some clever magic would add a pleasant spice to that rum, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is for you.