An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is my most recent dive into steampunk SFF. Set in a world with floating islands, skyships, clockwork “priests,” musketeers and other French influences, shadow and mirror-related magics, and political maneuvering, this novel was a surprisingly good little adventure. Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs was born with a deformed hand and without her family’s bloodshadow magic. Luckily she has her trusted musketeer and father figure, Jean Claude, to help her survive and flourish despite her family’s cruelty. When Isabelle is offered a strange marriage proposal, she and Jean Claude fall into a complex battle for the throne of the Kingdom of Aragoth.
I recently acquired several first books in lesser-known fantasy series. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was the first one I tried, and it put my experiment off to a good start. This is a slower, character and politically driven fantasy novel. The character development is quite strong, and both of the main characters are fleshed out and likable. I really enjoyed Isabelle in particular. She is interested in science, math, and philosophy, but these subjects are not permitted to be studied by women. She finds ways to work around this, and she uses her appearance to make others underestimate her. I haven’t seen many disabled main characters in epic fantasy, but since I am not disabled and the book was not “own voices,” I cannot say for sure if the representation was done well. As for Jean Claude, he an old soldier with a good heart. It is easy to see how much her cares for Isabelle, but he doesn’t coddle her. Isabelle doesn’t need Jean Claude and isn’t a damsel in distress, but they work together well and learn from each other over time.
The plot starts a bit slow as we get to know Isabella and Jean Claude, but once Isabelle receives a surprise marriage proposal from a prince of Aragoth things really heat up. The king of Aragoth is dying, and there is no clear successor because the oldest prince has yet to have an heir but refuses to remarry another woman. In this world the royal families possess different kinds of magic in their bloodlines. The Temple oversees the marriages and chain of succession in order to keep the bloodlines healthy. There is a prophecy that “the Savior” of their world will be born from the right royal pairing. Despite Isabelle’s lack of magic, her bloodline is still desirable, and the Temple has taken an interest in her potential to mix with Aragoth’s line. To be honest, the “breeding” part of the plot was a little strange, and I didn’t like Isabelle’s worth being based on the capabilities of her womb, but I think the point was to show that the “breeding” was a bad thing for everyone involved. Isabelle knows her worth is more than that of a broodmare, and she values peace above all else. With her quick wit and resourcefulness she seeks her own freedom from the political schemes of those around her and tries to bring peace to both her and her betrothed’s kingdoms with the help of the ever-loyal Jean Claude.
It took me some time to get into this novel. There is a lot going on, and it took a lot of time for me to absorb everything. A lot of time is spent getting to know the characters, the magic types, and the world building. All of these aspects are explained in detail and not all of it is important later. It felt like the author was trying to do a little too much at once, and some things just couldn’t be fully utilized in 400 pages, but I suspect that some aspects will be explored more in future books in the series. As I said, I am not sure how good the disabled representation is, and I can’t say if the author mishandled the French and Spanish influences. What I can speak on is that there were often lengthy sections of dialogue in which the characters argued or planned something. It felt like the dialogue was used to dump some information on the reader, but it wasn’t always done in the most engaging way. The ending was also abrupt. I would have at least liked an epilogue that explained a little more about what happened after all of the climatic action. I’m sure subsequent books will explain more, but I felt a little robbed by the short reunion at the end of the novel!
All in all, this was a unique and creative fantasy novel that had a complex and satisfyingly twisty plot. I may continue the series later, but at this point I am satisfied with this 4 star read. Feel free to comment about how you felt about the French, Spanish, or disabled representation in the book if you’d like to share your insight!