I have the world’s most fantastic roommate, who also happens to be one of my best friends, and he has a passion for literature with backdrops in Victorian England, Ireland, and Scotland. Being acquainted with him for so long, and being able to raid his bookshelves when I am hungry for a good book, have caused these passions to immensely rub off on me! As such, when I came across a young-adult novel at my local bookstore, boasting Victorian era fantasy and dashing romance, I became rather excited. Not only did it fit my infatuation with its gothicesque setting, but I found that it was not a bestseller by any means. In an effort to expand my bookish repertoire, I have been going out of my way to avoid bestsellers for the time being so that I may discover more lesser-known narratives. This second aspect sold the book on the spot. I trudged her home and dove right it, and I am super pleased to say that it was a marvelous reading experience!
These Vicious Masks written by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas is a young-adult Victorian fantasy that revolves around two sisters, Evelyn and Rose. They stem from a rather wealthy family and as such are expected to show up at the fluffy dances with the sole intention of finding a future husband. No worries, for this is most decidedly not what this story is about. Anyhow, one evening after a rather boring social event, the girls return home and call it a night. Evelyn has a terrible nightmare and awakens to discover that her sister has disappeared! A note was left behind in Evelyn’s bedroom saying that Rose wanted to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor, however she knew she would never receive the acceptance or respect she needed to do so properly from their mother. Certain clues tip Evelyn off into realizing that Rose was not a runaway. Instead she was a victim of kidnapping. When her parents refuse to believe her, she sets off alone to rescue her sister.
Upon the surface, These Vicious Masks seems relatively straightforward: a Sherlockian type of mystery. Although, as you read on it becomes very apparent, and quite quickly mind you, that there is a whole lot more to this tale than a mere kidnapping. As Evelyn follows one lead to another, she learns that there are people in the world who are “gifted,” or have supernatural abilities. Examples of these abilities include being able to charm someone into loving you, healing capabilities, being able to keep someone from lying, ridiculously inhumane amounts of strength… You get the idea. When she hears of these bizarre talents, our female protagonist recognizes that her sister’s abduction is a single thread in a much larger portrait.
There were many facets to this novel that I thoroughly enjoyed, and most of them caught me by surprise. The first and foremost element I loved is the setting. Victorian London is such a magical place for my imagination and my heart, even if it was a time that was decidedly dark and dangerous (Jack the Ripper ring any bells?). Reading about societal soirees that are pretty silly in nature, the fashion with corsets and poofy dresses, the top-hats and mandatory mannerisms of polite social interaction, the carriages, the gloominess—these are all exceptionally intriguing to me and are presented really nicely in this book. The characters’ personalities, interaction and dialogue, as well as scenery descriptions wholly bring the era to life in a satisfying and accessible form.
This leads me to the next pro-piece: the characters. A couple of them are a bit clichéd in the way they talk to women (i.e.: being flirty by being an ass), still for the most part they are engaging. Our female protagonist, Evelyn, is certainly amusing with her quick-fire wit and sass. She is a strong believer against the absurd social restrictions and expectations that are placed on women, which gets her into trouble because she tends to vocalize these opinions at the most inopportune moments. While a great amount of effort is put into not making her a damsel in distress, the situation does come up occasionally, yet it is not frustrating or so predictable that it makes me want to bang my head on something sharp and shiny. The male characters have enough details about them to set them apart from one another. What they lack for in clichéd personality, they make up for with their special powers.
Thirdly, and I mentioned this briefly above, is that the writing is unexpectedly good. The pacing is impeccable. The sister-snatching happens within the first few chapters of the book and that kicks off the storytelling with an air of suspense. It hooks you right in, keeping you interested with each passing of the page. Events unfold in a seamless motion that is wholeheartedly natural yet charming. The story itself is concise with an adequate balance of intrigue, mystery, romance, witty banter, and action. I loved that I could not predict was going to happen. Certain sections were easier to foresee than others, but I was never able to put my finger on the culprits, or the ending. It felt amazing to be surprised.
There are two very specific aspects of These Vicious Masks that I did not care for at all. Number one is the love triangle. Like, seriously? Is a love triangle so damn necessary when you already have so many other redeeming qualities going for you? I found this to be utterly frustrating, as the triangle bit is not simply limited to Evelyn. Rose is shanghaied into this nonsense as well. Not only was this overused trope absolutely unnecessary, but it followed painfully unoriginal mechanics.
- Forbidden, dangerous new guy
- Familiar, “safe” friend who has always been there
- Hate at first sight means love in the end
- Burning jealousy spurning the men onwards in an uncharacteristic style
Number two on the disappointments list has to do the notion that females are incapable of doing anything on their own because it will either ruin her prospects for marriage, or because she is a weak and fragile creature. Now, being true to the time period, I do understand where these ideals come from. On the other hand, when it is presented by a person that seemingly admires the woman for being independent, it makes me roll my eyes. It is a concept that degrades Evelyn’s headstrong personality; also pointless.
The bottom line: These Vicious Masks is a pretty decent young adult, Victorian fantasy novel with mildly clichéd romance elements that could get slightly frustrating at times. If you can get past those elements, the story is enjoyable and the supernatural powers quite fascinating. With my rating of three and a half masks out of five, I recommend it.