Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Masks by E. C. Blake

Author:  E. C. Blake
Series:  Masks of Aygrima 1
Publisher:  DAW, November 5, 2013
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 304 pages
List Price:  $19.95 (print)
ISBN:  9780756407599 (print)
Review Copy:  Provided by the Publisher

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 or 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 all-important 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. Is it because she didn t turn 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 slavery in the mines until she dies. And not even her Gift can show Mara 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.

Brannigan's Review

Masks is the first novel in a new fantasy series. From the first page, you're thrust into an epic story involving a very interesting magic system. One I've never see before and one that I never got tired learning about. The magic system is its own character in the book, and since it is unique, you spend a lot of time learning about it and how it relates to the world. Still, the author leaves enough mystery that you hope to learn more about it in future books.

Mara Holdfast is a very identifiable character, one that almost any female can find a common thread with, while also not alienating males who would like to read the series. The book begins with Mara being very young and illustrates her ideal home life and the tests she goes through to discover her magical gift. This is an important area to develop her character, so the readers will be able to understand the struggles she goes through later in the book. In the majority of the story, however, she is a 15-year-old.

I've read some complaints by other reviewers that Mara is a bit whiny in the book and it drove them away. I think it's important to talk about the target audience for this book. The publisher has categorized it as General Adult/Grades 12 & Up, however based on the character's age and the plot, I see it as more of a Young Adult book. I think some adult readers will find Mara on the whiny side, whereas older teenagers may not find it annoying, since they're still exploring the world around them as well as exploring the same inner emotions and learning how to deal with their world. Mara is true to this and does spend time thinking about what she has been forced to do.

For you romance fans, there is also the beginning of a love triangle in the story, but thankfully for the non-romantics it's not the center of the story. I suspect it will be used in future books, but since it is handled very naturally, I don't think I'd mind reading more about it in future books.

The only complaint I have about the book other than an unclear target audience, is I didn't get to spend more time with the villain of the series, the Autarch. He's still a bit of an enigma. I know some authors like to take this approach with villains—less is more. There are plenty of other minor villains in the book, but I kept wanting to see the Autarch in action, instead of learning about him second hand from other characters.

If young adults or parents of young adults would like to read the book, I do feel obligated to mention there are several scenes of graphic violence, as well as several implied references to rape and one scene of attempted rape. There are also a few instances of strong language. Lastly, there is a scene of under-age drinking, but it also shows the morning-after effects.

Masks is a strong first book in a promising new series, however, I hope the author finds his target audience by the second book. I'd recommend Masks to older young adults, and adults who enjoy Fantasy and Dystopian fiction with teenage characters or anyone who likes unique magical systems.


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