An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (The Risen Kingdoms #1) by Curtis Craddock

Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: August 29th 2017 by Tor Books
Source: Publisher


An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is not intended as kidlit. However, after reading it, I found it to be very much a crossover title and think that older teens who enjoy high fantasy will very much enjoy this title.

The official synopsis:

A polymath princess and her faithful musketeer must unravel the plot of a thousand-year-old madman in order to save an a foreign kingdom from a disastrous civil war.

Caelum is an uninhabitable gas giant like Jupiter. High above it are the Risen Kingdoms, occupying flying continents called cratons. Remnants of a shattered world, these vast disks of soaring stone may be a thousand miles across. Suspended by magic, they float in the upper layers of Caelum’s clouds.

Born with a deformed hand and utter lack of the family’s blood magic, Isabelle is despised by her cruel father. She is happy to be neglected so she can secretly pursue her illicit passion for math and science. Then, a surprising offer of an arranged royal marriage blows her life wide open and launches her and Jeane-Claude on an adventure that will take them from the Isle des Zephyrs in l’Empire Céleste to the very different Kingdom of Aragoth, where magic deals not with blood, but with mirrors.

Confession: I do not usually read high fantasy novels by male authors because I have had terrible experiences with the portrayal of women in books by these authors. However, I could not resist the summary of this one and decided to give it a chance. I was very pleasantly surprised.

The worldbuilding is fantastic. Craddock pays particular detail to the politics and histories of the various peoples population his worlds, taking care to detail the relationships between the different factions most prominently involved in protagonists’ lives.

Isabelle’s father is one of the most blackhearted villains I have had the pleasure of reading in a long while. His lack of empathy, his cruelty with his daughter, his objectification of her, all of these things came together to build a character who has zero redeeming qualities, not that Craddock intends to make him redeemable. Isabelle, on the other hand, is very much flawed but she’s earnest and so smart. We often see characters touted as smart, has having a fearsome intellect without being shown that. Isabelle’s intellect comes through in how she talks and what she talks about. Her preoccupation with mechanics and mathematics sometimes lost me but always left me feeling a bit breathless.

The other protagonist, Jean-Claude, father to Isabelle in all but blood, is also a pleasure to read. He is her musketeer and he has a sort of rakish charm you expect musketeers to have. What’s so endearing to me is not just how he concerned he is for Isabelle but also how he manages not to smother her with this concern. He has taught her how to survive and is confident in his teachings to trust her to make the right choices and act in a manner that ensures her survival. And just in case it needs to be sad, Isabelle is no one’s distressed damsel; she saves not just herself but other people as well.

The romance is a subplot and interesting when it does make an appearance so it’s rather like a garnish to a tasty curry rather than the curry itself. The magic-system in the world Craddock has created is fascinating. Particular families descended from saints carry particular abilities. Isabelle, unfortunately, is “hollow” which means she doesn’t have a family’s mastery over blood (and people) which also means people always discount her as non-magical and deformed. It is only when she travels away from her evil father that she is able to show (at least somewhat for in that world smart women are somehow evil?) her keen intellect.

The book is smartly written, the characters are fun and sympathetic, and the story immersive. If you like high fantasy, I dare say you will like this one too.