Friday, April 19, 2013

Review of City of Masks

Okay, guys... this week I'm going to deliver up a review that I promised a friend months and months ago. Thank you David Walters for being so patient with me!

City of Masks is a adventurous romp through an imaginative fantasy world created by author David Walters. A young assassin steals a powerful sword and flees the oppressive school where he has been trained, hot with dreams of vengeance against his former masters for the slaying of his parents. Out in the world, he meets up with a beautiful foreign ambassador and quickly becomes involved in hefty political matters, which he tackles with all the subtlety of an angry puppy. His tremendous personal skill and dedication lead to him playing a shaping role in events to come, but never does he forget his parents, or his need to avenge their deaths.

The Good

There are two things City of Masks does very well: the setting and the pacing. Pacing and building tension is a challenge as an author, and City of Masks is a page-turner. I consistently found myself on the edge of my seat at the beginning of any new chapter, wondering what was going to happen next, wondering how he was going to get out of it this time. It's an exciting yarn, no doubt about it!

But even more impressive, I think, is the vision of this world. The City of Restal is a world ruled by a strict social order. There are 12 castes, based on 12 animals, and each member of the city or surrounds must wear a mask at all times, showing a depiction of the animal that represents their caste. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from the Manuscript of Creatures, many of which describe one of the animal castes--typically one which will play a significant role in the coming chapter. Women wear masks of cloth, while men wear masks of wood or metal, and showing your naked face is considered improprietous, much like we would consider showing nudity. It's a fascinating society, and I still find myself thinking about it from time to time.

I also should mention that many of the descriptions are done quite well, especially the fight scenes. The fight scenes are vividly drawn, and the author has a good sense for when to describe in detail, and when excessive detail would be tedious. As I mentioned above, the pacing is excellent.

Now lets move on to...

Edit: Also got to give a nod to some of the excellent surprised the book delivers up, especially a couple of big reveals that come later on. Well done, sir!

The Bad

While there is much that is noteworth in City of Masks, it has some weaknesses as well. The characterizations are weak, the audacity of the hero sometimes breaks my suspension of disbelief--I really feel he would have gotten himself killed after two days in the open world--and the plot flirts dangerously with the cliche.

I shouldn't say the plot, per se, is cliche. Actually, I would have to mark up "plot" under the positives in this case. There are some excellent and unpredictable twists, which bring a lot of life to the world, and everything mostly seems to make sense as you go along. It's more just the premise that is a little cliche. An assassin goes rogue, then seeks vengeance for the slaying of his parents. Hardly unfamiliar.

Actually, the real problem, I think, lies in the characterization of Rayne himself, or, as he is so melodramatically dubbed, "Darkspirit." *sigh* Reading some of Darkspirit's dialogue, I feel like I'm watching a twelve year old masturbate. Seriously, man, have you never heard of impulse control? Also, what's with the random morality at inappropriate moments? He's not otherwise notable for being what you might call a 'good person.' I swear, this guy chooses the strangest moments to grow a moral compass.

It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't consistently get away with it! Darkspirit's character consists, basically, of being a pissy little bitch, and for some reason no one ever calls him on it. The world itself is warped by the power of Darkspirit's raw supposed-awesomeness, such that no one can stand in the path of his blazing, adolescent indignation, regardless of social class, combat training, or weight of numbers.

This is definitely the weakest part of the book. There's something about the entire story that feels like a young boy's immature power fantasy--even more than most fantasy stories. But hey, if that's your appetite, then bon appetit.

The Ugly

I'm giving City of Masks a 3 out of 5. It held my interest through the whole novel, and that's not easy to do. But some of Rayne's dialogue is cringe-worthy, especially early on. The characters never completely sell it, but they're colorful enough to be interesting, and the plot, though not original in concept, has some blisteringly tense twists and turns that keep you hooked right up until the fantastic big reveal at the end. If the characterization had been stronger, this could have been a great book, especially with that big reveal, but... the soul of the story really seems to be a power fantasy about Rayne, and I just can't get too excited about that.

By high standards, it's good, but not great. Still definitely worth a read. If you can make it through Rayne's dialogue, you've got a great ride ahead of you. In closing, I also want to say I love the concept of the setting, and would love to see this world brought to life further.


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