Today in YA: A Review of These Vicious Masks
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The following review of These Vicious Masks (Swoon Reads, February 9, 2016) by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas is from Food, Fitness & Fiction Contributing Editor Amber Lee.
These Vicious Masks is a hell of a ride. While its marketing shtick of “Jane Austen meets X-Men” is not quite accurate, the novel definitely grabbed my attention and kept flittering in my periphery whenever I put it down.
Here’s a description of the book from Goodreads:
England, 1882. Evelyn is bored with society and its expectations. So when her beloved sister, Rose, mysteriously vanishes, she ignores her parents and travels to London to find her, accompanied by the dashing Mr. Kent. But they’re not the only ones looking for Rose. The reclusive, young gentleman Sebastian Braddock is also searching for her, claiming that both sisters have special healing powers. Evelyn is convinced that Sebastian must be mad, until she discovers that his strange tales of extraordinary people are true—and that her sister is in graver danger than she feared.
Weirdly, the lack of historical accuracy barely phased me. This is a contemporary teen romance, through and through. Rather than being immersive, the backdrop–London in 1882–is a convenient segue for all the delicious tropes that a Victorian romance entails. And that’s fine. It’s the well-worn and well-loved formula: small-town upper-society girl wants to see the world. Sebastian Braddock is very much set up as the Darcy figure: he’s dark haired and broody and attracts everyone except for Evelyn, of course. I do wish that the balls and other socializing aspects in the novel were expanded upon. I also found the social stigma for Rose and Evelyn wanting to be nurses to be ungrounded. Though it probably would not bother most readers, I found Lord Byron to be mentioned way too often without much context. The Romantic/Gothic period was half a century before the events of the book and there was no real reason to over-emphasize the Byronic hero archetype Sebastian is made to debunk or how historically displaced the story is. I’m curious about why the authors didn’t set the novel a few decades earlier since Jane Austen and the entire Regency era are mid-century.
The magic system in the novel is an interesting one, as there is no real system. It is explained as evolutionary differences with some phenomenon called saltation that is described but not really proven enough to work. The variety of powers is wonderful though, from healing to teleportation to always eliciting truthful answers. The various powers were well-integrated into the plot, especially in being the driving force of Dr. Beck, the evil scientist who could predict the future. The side characters each suggest their own shadowy worlds and plots that could be further expanded upon in the rest of the trilogy. My personal favorite is Camille, who epitomized the novel’s titular masks and the façade motif that trailed through the book. She can morph herself to look like anyone and also can change other people for a price. I really hope the authors feature her in their follow up books. In this vein, the eclectic side characters who moved the story forward provided some of the best aspects of the novel. The abilities are vastly undefined and as a result are unpredictable, leaving the reader wanting to see what happens next.
However, the success of piquing so much interest with the illicit lower-class urban magic scene really serves to exacerbate how uninteresting I found the high society aspects of the novel to be. To some extent this is on purpose, as Evelyn is as bored with it as we are, but half of the characters introduced are, in my opinion, simply not worth remembering. The entire subplot that revolves around the society’s disdain of Evelyn only gave her an excuse to leave society altogether and did not have any real gravity as a conflict. And then there are the love triangles. A jealous romantic rival spreading rumors is a trite, unfortunately gendered trope that could have easily been side-stepped. While Mr. Kent was altogether not very solid or engaging, he did have a lot of great dialogue with Evelyn. Sebastian’s characterization was primarily established through iffy analogies to the Byronic hero archetype coupled with refutations of it. While the dialogue between Sebastian and Evelyn was my favorite, relatively not much happened between them romantically compared to all the cheesy framing.
Despite a few boring parts, the novel’s plot is bright and lively with top-notch banter and emotional moments that make the 300-ish pages fly by much too soon. None of the smaller nit-picky issues that usually turn me away from books are pronounced enough under the constant barrage of action and humor to detract from my enjoyment of the story. For the most part, this is because of Evelyn. She’s not the introspective type. She’s brash, impulsive, and empathetic. She holds on fiercely to her morals and to Rose, the one person she really cares about. Her voice is full of snark and sarcasm that ties the whole book together and makes it easy to gloss over the difficulties the plot has in getting the ball rolling in the first quarter of the novel. The twists near the end are mostly well-padded with foreshadowing and unravel quite nicely.
Overall I found These Vicious Masks to be a delight to tumble through. It was truly entertaining with a world of characters and powers that hold a lot of possibility. I will definitely follow the series in the future. While the book may not be for those seeking vivid historical realism or truly nuanced in-depth characterization, it is a great read that is far from the usual paranormal romance.
Amber Lee, a high school junior from Irvine, California, is a staff writer for the Beckman Chronicle. She likes having too many hobbies at the same time to actually really improve at any of them: like reading, writing, art, useless historical research, drums, guitar, webcomic-ing, boxing, Muay Thai, and critical consumption of mass media. You can follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.
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