A delightful and engrossing fantasy debut featuring an intelligent heroine and her guardian, a royal musketeer.
In a world of soaring continents and bottomless skies, where a burgeoning new science lifts skyships into the cloud-strewn heights, and ancient blood-borne sorceries cling to a fading glory, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs is about to be married to a man she has barely heard of, the second son of a dying king in an empire collapsing into civil war.
Born without the sorcery that is her birthright but with a perspicacious intellect, Isabelle believes her marriage will stave off disastrous conflict and bring her opportunity and influence. But the last two women betrothed to this prince were murdered, and a sorcerer-assassin is bent on making Isabelle the third. Aided and defended by her loyal musketeer, Jean-Claude, Isabelle plunges into a great maze of prophecy, intrigue, and betrayal, where everyone wears masks of glamour and lies. Step by dangerous step, she unravels the lies of her enemies and discovers a truth more perilous than any deception.
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Jean-Claude clung to the St. Marie's guardrail with one hand and to his tether with the other. He wanted a word with Captain Jerome, who stood on the quarterdeck, an impossible distance away. Unfortunately, doing the impossible was a sworn part of Jean-Claude's duty, so he slide-stepped awkwardly toward the skyship's stern as the vessel climbed a tall ridge of turbulence. The whistling wind made jib sails of his tabard's loose sleeve flaps, tugging him toward the rail and the emptiness beyond.
All around him, deckhands scurried about, tugging on lines, adjusting sails in a madman's dance choreographed to the boatswain's cry. Jean-Claude reached the curling stair to the quarterdeck and climbed, stumbling as his leather riding boots slipped on cloud-slicked steps. He achieved the top of the stair just as the St. Marie crested the pressure ridge.
The masts creaked, and the vast spiderweb of rigging hummed with tension as the ship's enormous stresses shifted. For a moment, Jean-Claude hung weightless, floating free as a smoke puff on the wind. His toes strained to reach the deck beneath his feet but succeeded only in propelling him away from it. The skyship banked, bumping and tilting him halfway over the rail. Beyond that flimsy frontier and far below the turvy sails thrusting down beneath the hull awaited the Gloom, a fathomless abyss of lightning-shot clouds. Those clouds beckoned him like the pillowed embrace of a familiar paramour. Against all good sense, he yearned toward the abyss. His grip on the rail slipped.
Then his own weight landed on him hard. He hit the deck with a knee-popping thump. His boots slipped and he tumbled to his backside. His heart rattled around his ribs like a die in a cup. Carefully, he eased away from the edge of the ship.
He hated skyships. How many men before him had been claimed by the fatal impulse to let go? How many had felt the sick urge to fall forever, down to where the clouds never parted, the rain never ceased, and the wind ripped ships and men to pieces? Every time Jean-Claude saw it, it called to him.
I should have stayed a farmer. If only he had been an obedient lad, dutifully following a plow through rocky fields, he would never have sneaked away from his chores to watch the Duc d'Orange's forces bring battle to the raiding Mark of Oberholz. Then he would never have chanced upon the wounded duc or hidden him from the mark's search parties. He would never have earned the duc's gratitude or been shoehorned into l'École Royale des Spécialistes. He would never have been attached as liaison to the Comte des Zephyrs, and he never would have been ordered to get on one of these hundred-times-damned flying boats.
From the forward rail of the quarterdeck, Captain Jerome watched Jean-Claude's progress with evident amusement.
"Six weeks aloft and you still haven't got your sky legs," Jerome said with an aloof, aristocratic delight that suggested he'd expected no better. A landless, penniless seventh son of minor clayborn gentry, Jerome treasured the singular noble privilege to which he was entitled: disdain for the lowborn. His sole redeeming feature, in Jean-Claude's eyes, was that he was good at his job, an asset rather than an impediment to his crew, a circumstance all too rare in the gentry-swollen navy.
Jean-Claude scrambled to his feet and tried to recover poise as well as balance as the skyship accelerated into the next aerial trough.
"You said we were about to make land!" His own privilege, as King's Own Musketeer, was deferring to no one outside his own very short chain of command. Of course, keeping that privilege meant completing his missions without falter or fail, no matter the distance or danger. Orders like "Deliver this message from my lips to the comtesse's ears ere the baby is born" did not account for time spent evading pirates or allow for being blown a week off course by an unanticipated aetherstorm.
Jerome stood on the rolling deck as if nailed to it, not a hair of his white powdered wig out of place. He jerked his chin toward the bow and said, "We're coming in widdershins on the trailing edge," as if that clarified the matter. "If we don't undershoot and ram the light tower, we should make harbor within the hour."
Jean-Claude turned. With the St. Marie on a decline, l'Île des Zephyrs rose into view. There was the afternoon glitter of Lac Rond tucked in amongst the rolling hills. Nearer at hand, the green blanket of the forest crept out of the wrinkled uplands and took a peek at oblivion over the scalloped edge of the sky cliff. Thin plumes of smoke, the telltale signs of human endeavor, curled from behind a ridge to the left. There, on a promontory of rock overhanging the endless fall, was des Zephyrs's light tower, its reflector flashing rhythmically.
"Aren't we coming in a little high?" Jean-Claude asked. Skyships could not fly over land — his academy instructors had said aetherkeels needed a certain amount of air to support them, and flying over rock robbed them of buoyancy — and the St. Marie seemed to be aimed at a hillside.
Captain Jerome gave a long-suffering sigh. "You can't steer a skyship to where her destination is. You have to steer her where that destination is going to be. Helmsman, make ready to slip. Steer to port on my mark. Reef the main sails and level the beam screw."
"Aye. Steer to port. Reef the mains. Level beam screw. Aye!" replied the helmsman. Farther down, the boatswain picked up the cry, bellowing a series of orders that must have made sense to the crew, for they scampered about as if the Breaker herself were nipping at their heels. Lines and canvas shifted. The ship shuddered as if in anticipation.
"Steering a skyship requires forethought, strategy, calculation," Jerome said. "Helmsman, now!"
The helmsman leaned into the wheel, and the huge fantail rudder flagged to the left.
"You might want to hang on to something," Jerome said mildly.
Jean-Claude grabbed a piece of railing that no one else seemed to be using and swallowed hard. The ship nosed to the left, turning away from land, then rolled over some invisible frontier and began to tilt and slide to the right, until Jean-Claude swore it was going to flip over and throw them all to their deaths. He clung to the rail as the ship tried to fall out from under him. Wind buffets sent his feet sliding. Blood flowed from his mouth where he had bitten his tongue.
The St. Marie veered to a course nearly parallel to the sky cliff, angling steadily downward, picking up speed ... gliding. The turbulence dissipated. It felt like the ship was tobogganing down a smooth, icy hillside with only the occasional rippling bump. With effort, Jean-Claude unclenched his white-knuckled fingers. "What happened?"
Jerome cupped one hand and twirled his finger over it. "Large masses like skylands produce an aetheric vortex, and the vortex has grooves in it. Poke a hole in the bottom of a bowl full of water and you'll see what I mean. We're riding one of those grooves down and toward the center. This one should take us right under des Zephyrs's light tower. Then we deploy braking sails and pop up like a cork in the harbor. Of course ... timing is everything."
"You are a madman," Jean-Claude said, and Jerome tipped his tricorn, taking it for the compliment it was.
The St. Marie drew level with the cliff wall, a pockmarked scarp a hundred feet high. Then they passed below the rim where the sinking Solar illuminated the belly of the skyland, a vast downward-pointing cone of rock bristling with an upside-down forest of salt-encrusted, aether-emitting cloud-coral stalactites that kept the skyland aloft.
The last leg of the voyage progressed as safely and quickly as Jerome had promised, but not nearly fast enough for Jean-Claude. Six weeks he had spent on this cursed vessel, racing to the capital and back, to plead with His Majesty on behalf of the wicked, wretched Comtesse des Zephyrs. He would just as soon have pushed the vile woman and her villainous relations off a sky cliff. Alas, what duties le roi commanded, his most loyal, most junior musketeer must perform, and he had said des Zephyrs's bloodline must not fail.
In truth, Jean-Claude suspected that le roi's position atop the house of cards that was the Célestial nobility was not nearly as stable as his public demeanor suggested. His most recent war had not been a success, and by its undue protraction it had seriously depleted the empire's ability to compete for land in the unexpectedly profitable new continent, Craton Riqueza. Thekingdom of Aragoth had found a way to traverse the Sargassian Still, that great belt of dead air between the northern and southern sky that had so vexed the navigators of the last century, and they had come back with wondrous tales of a new land, backed up with chests of gold and sacred quondam artifacts. As Aragoth's fortunes rose, so did l'Empire Céleste's fall, at least by comparison. Thus, Grand Leon was busy appeasing his nobles, including the execrable des Zephyrs, while he gathered his strength for some new far-reaching scheme. Grand it would be, of that there was no doubt. Le roi had no interest in any prize smaller than a craton.
From his cabin, Jean-Claude collected a large painting of His Imperial Majesty, le Roi de Tonnerre, Leon XIV. The painted face glowered dyspeptically at him, as if to chastise him for his rude handling. Jean-Claude covered it with a sheet and secured it at all points by wrapping both arms around it. Damned ridiculous thing.
When he scrambled from the shore boat onto the solid stone landing at the quay, his legs wobbled from sheer relief. It didn't matter in the least that skyships were held aloft by precisely the same incomprehensible forces that held up skylands; the skyland didn't feel like it was going to fall out from under him. He would have dropped to his knees and kissed the stable ground if he hadn't been met by Pierre, the comte's chamberlain, a diffident man with a rabbitlike twitch to his lip.
"Jean-Claude, Jean-Claude. Thank the Builder and Savior you've come," Pierre cried, breathless and flushed. "It is the comtesse. It is her time. Even now she awaits only her roi's blessing."
"So soon?" Jean-Claude felt as if someone had slugged him in the gut. Even with all his delays in getting here, he ought to be well forward of the mark; the physicians had told him the Comtesse des Zephyrs was not supposed to deliver for another week at least. This was ill news ... at least for des Zephyrs.
"She is in considerable distress. Her wails were quite piteous."
"Haste then. Haste!" The strength of duty surged within Jean-Claude. Clutching the painting, he dashed up the cobbled street and leapt aboard the comte's carriage, displacing the whip man toward the center of the bench. "Drive, man. Ply that scourge!"
With a snap of his wrist, the whip man sent the coach horses racing. Pierre, not quick enough, chased after them for a few strides, then bent over, coughing in the dust. Jean-Claude's heart thundered in time to the horses'hooves. If only his honor would allow him to fail his sworn mission, this could be the end of des Zephyrs's line. Le roi's long-standing decree that Sanguinaire ladies must personally attend him at the hour of their delivery or else have their whelps denied names and decreed bastards was just another link in the endless chain by which he bound the nobility to his will. Normally, gravid dames were forced to travel to his palace to give birth, an inconvenience that kept most ladies of childbearing years from ever leaving Rocher Royale and required their husbands to visit them often.
Ah, but the Comtesse des Zephyrs had already miscarried so many times, and this pregnancy had been so terribly complicated ... and so Jean-Claude had been dispatched to plead the comtesse's case to le roi. Would he deign to spare his dear aunt's bloodline, or would des Zephyrs be allowed to perish? Alas for JeanClaude's eloquent tongue and His Majesty's good sense, for he had sent his portrait as surrogate, his idea of a compromise, so the vile family might linger into another generation ... if Jean-Claude was on time.
Scattering peasants, townsfolk, goats, and chickens, the carriage raced through the town of Windfall and thundered out the hinterland gate, past the queue of carts waiting for nightfall to bring their goods inside the walls.
Ahead, des Zephyrs's estate stood atop a massive acropolis. At its foot stood the Pit of Stains, a half-round theater in the ancient Aetegian style, carved out of solid rock. Jean-Claude's heart tightened as the coach approached that venue. In other cities, amphitheaters were full of life, used to enact plays and celebrate festivals, but the Pit of Stains was desolate, barren save for a pattern of reddish discolorations scattered about like fallen maple leaves, the lingering traces of the Comte and Comtesse des Zephyrs's cruelty.
Once a month, the comte's white-liveried guards paraded ten condemned men, women, and children to that stage. Some of the victims were actual criminals, but most were rounded up for the spectacle on false pretense or none at all. Witnesses, the families of the damned, were herded into the theater seats, and everybody waited until the comte and comtesse arrived, at high noon, to perform the execution.
The prisoners were unshackled and then the comte and comtesse released their sorcery. Des Zephyrs were saintborn, direct descendants of the Risen Saints. As such, they carried la Marque Sanguinaire, the mark of one of the ancient sorceries, in their veins. Their shadows were not gray like those of normal folk, but crimson, and they stretched away from the aristocrats' feetlike great elastic ribbons of blood. These bloodshadows flowed onto the stage, surrounded the prisoners, and slowly constricted.
There were rules to this game. Only the first two prisoners to be touched by the shadows were killed. Nobody wanted to be amongst that count, so as sanguine shadows filled the amphitheater floor, the condemned huddled together on a shrinking island of light, scrambling to be as far from the creeping doom as possible, pushing one another out of the way, begging for a mercy that would not come.
All too quickly, the victims turned on one another, the stronger thrusting the weaker into the oncoming flood. Sometimes, a brave soul would sacrifice himself or herself to save the others, but as a single selfless act was not enough to turn the tide, it rarely prevented a brawl to avoid the fate of being the second victim.
Jean-Claude had borne witness to the ritual once and still shuddered at the memory. The comte had not smiled — he never smiled — but his eyes gleamed in delight as his bloodshadow devoured a man not much younger than the musketeer. The sorcerous stain entered the boy through his shadow. His flesh turned transparent and melted, his body losing shape and coherence as the red tide absorbed him, destroying him down to the very soul.
Terrified and horrified, Jean-Claude had done nothing to stop the murder. Legally there was nothing he could do. By most ancient and sacred law, the Sanguinaire were owed their due. Shadow feeding did not have to be fatal or even greatly hurtful. Other Sanguinaire nobles took their due from their subjects without recourse to murder. Many nobles paid quite well for the service and afforded their donors places of honor that had folk vying for the privilege. Not the des Zephyrs.
"Only a full feeding gives full benefits," the comte proclaimed. "Only fear satisfies the shadow. Only death sates it."
When the bloodshadows withdrew, nothing was left of the boy but a soul smudge, a patch of russet that seemed to writhe just beneath the surface of the stone, squirming in the sunlight. The remaining prisoners had been pardoned. They returned to the relief of their families, and, all too often, the reproach of the kin of the slain. "You killed my son." "You pushed my sister in." "You should have died."
And that was the elegant mechanism of the spectacle of slaughter. It kept the downtrodden divided, almost as resentful of one another as of the so-called nobles who commanded and performed the murders.
The coach sped by the killing ground, and it seemed to Jean-Claude that he could hear the ghosts of long-ago screams. And this is the bloodline I must preserve. If the comtesse's child lived and thrived, it would join its parents on that platform, and there would be three fresh smudges on that platform every month. That thought filled Jean-Claude with revulsion, but le roi's desire had been specific. Three clayborn peasants a month to keep the des Zephyrs happy were but the crumbs wiped from a silver plate from Grand Leon's perspective.
Excerpted from "An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors"
Copyright © 2017 Curtis Craddock.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A clever mystery with a complex but well crafted plot and interesting, 3-dimensional characters. It kept me up past my bedtime on a work night. This one is a keeper and I intend to add the author to my must-buy list.
One of the best fantasy series starters I've read in a very, very long time. The star of this story is the world-building, hands down. The world these people live in is just so unique and creative and well thought out. The magic system is fascinating and utilized perfectly. The oppressive religion is believable and has an appropriate impact on the story. The way the author blends actual Earth culture with these fantastical variations makes for such a great premise, and the story doesn't disappoint. The characters are only second to the world-building. Isabelle is a great protagonist. She's intelligent and witty, has reasonable strength and weaknesses, has a strong personality with a perfect mix of vulnerability thrown in, and the way the author builds her characterization around her disability instead of reducing her to a one-note character whose entire existence is about her disability made her a believable heroine in my eyes. Similarly, Jean-Claude as Isabelle's father figure and mentor, as well as a bold and witty hero made him an excellent character too. I enjoyed both the POVs in this book equally, which is something I don't think has happened in a very long time. The supporting cast, interestingly enough, was also well done, even though many of the characters only had minor roles. I'm looking forward to seeing how some of them develop in the sequel. If this book has any significant weakness, I've got to say the third act is a bit overstuffed. There are a few too many plot twists, a bit too much action -- the story gets very heavy at the tail end, with so many developments thrown in at the last minute. It's not so overstuffed that you can't follow it, however, if you're paying attention, but it's skirting that border in some places, and I think the author could have thinned out some of the plot points in the third act, streamlined things a bit, without losing anything significant. Overall, though, this was a very enjoyable read. I give it 4.5/5 stars, and I'm looking forward to the sequel. [NOTE: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]
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.