An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrorsby Curtis Craddock
Series: The Risen Kingdoms #1
Published on August 29, 2017 by Tor
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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.
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This book would have been the perfect follow-up to The Three Musketeers. Reading as a fantasy take on the classic (though not a re-telling), An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was honestly a delightfully swashbuckling read.
To start off, I think this is actually the first book I’ve read where the protagonist has a disability. Princess Isabelle is born with a single finger on one hand, referred to as a “wormfinger.” This has made her looked down upon based on the religion of the world and even within her own family as she also is lacking her family’s blood magic. Rather than focusing the story on her disability, I think Craddock did a great job of making it a part of Isabelle’s life but not a limitation. She deals with it and the prejudice held against her for the way she was born but it doesn’t hold her back. I’m not sure there is much in general that could hold this twelve-year-old back.
Honestly, what sold me on Isabelle’s character was her strength and intelligence. We’re not told that she’s clever and intuitive — we see it. We’re not told that she rises above those attempting to hold her back — we see it. This was a bit jumpy at times where she almost went from 0 to 60 but overall I think the author did well with her character. I especially liked that she was interested in math and science, especially as this contradicted what women could know at this time. Like many fantasies I’ve read, this book features an almost extreme patriarchal society but you see it through Isabelle’s eyes and how she continues to defy the rulings against her gender.
This world also brought a new twist to what readers might expect as seventeenth century Europe. To be clear, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is set in its own world but like many fantasies, seems to draw on our own world. I liked all the airships that basically resemble galleys much like you’d see in Pirates of the Caribbean, and that the continents (“skylands”) are quite literally flying islands that people fly between. Craddock keeps it simple and doesn’t overwhelm the reader with a ton of different world elements but instead goes farther in-depth with the ones he includes so that you feel fully immersed without the added confusion.
It took me a while to really get into this book but I was hooked by the end and can definitely say I recommend it to anyone who loves adventures and tackling a patriarchy and a resilient girl prepared to face the world.