Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Masks (Cassandra Palmer World) by Karen Chance

Mircea Basarab is a vampire who readers of Chance's Cassandra Palmer series are well acquainted with.  In Masks, Mircea is no longer the confidant, powerful centuries old vampire whom we have come to know. Masks travels back to fifteenth century Europe where Mircea is a newborn vampire, trying to adjust to his new undead life.  Even though Mircea is powerless relative to the courtesan who owns him, the senator who is intrigued by him. Though she has bigger fish to fry dealing with a  consul who has most certainly gone mad.  There are certainly good and bad vampires but when powerful vampires with unknown goals, grievances and priorities take interest in a newborn, it can be a dangerous thing, as Mircea is about to find out.

I have read all of the Cassandra Palmer's World and so when I learned about Masks, I jumped quickly on this book.  To see a different side to Mircea, was a huge hook for me. Though Mircea doesn't know much about what it means to be a vampire, he really isn't that different than the character we have come to know.  He continues to be confidant in his abilities and hyper aware of the world around him. Even though Mircea is essentially a slave and a prostitute, he eschews this label and instead sees himself as a free man in a precarious situation.   

Chance doesn't go as far as to give us an origin story for vampires but she does widen the world by telling us of the different ways in which a vampire can be made and the various talents they are capable of. This means that you cannot take any of the characters at face value.  It's a constant game of politics.

Being a former Prince, Mircea is a vampire with a lot of preconceived notions.  He thinks about the castles, power and wealth that he lost and it is not until he meets Bezio that his perspective on the world really changes.  Chance uses Bezio, a former farmer made vampire against his will to discuss class poignantly. To the poor, powerless person, it doesn't matter who is going rule because it essentially will not change their day to day life.  Chance also uses Bezio to talk about loss.  Mircea grieved for all of his worldly losses but it was Bezio who points out that as a poor man, he didn't lose any less; it was just valued less because he is poor.  One's home, one's family and one's identity is sometimes all someone has and that is worth something.  I loved their discussions and how it taught Mircea to look at power and identity differently. I do however feel that some of the good work was undone with Marta and her revenge.  Poverty exists because of an imbalance and greed and the way her storyline ended made it seem as though she was not entitled to her rage for the wrongs done her.

I was worried that we wouldn't have a strong female character in this novel because Mircea is the protagonists but there were several interesting characters.   The Senator, whose identity I will not reveal, was very strong.  In some ways, her interactions with Mircea reminded me of a cat toying with prey.  Martina, the owner of the brothel, who managed to survive without a master and make her own way in the world was interesting and is an absolutely intriguing character.  She found a way through a system designed for her to fail and still managed to eke out a comfortable existence, as well as gather loyal people.  Auria ended up strong in the end but she had to be taught by example by Mircea.  I did find it disturbing that she could not find that agency within herself.

Unlike other Chance books, Masks does not have a strain of the ridiculous, or even humor running through it.   From start to finish, it is basically a murder mystery with vampires thrown in.  I didn't figure out who the antagonist was until the end and I could have done without the big Perry Mason type info dump as an explanation as for why said is the person antagonist.  In many ways, towards the end it became quite convoluted. 

As with any Chance novel, there was plenty of action.  Unfortunately, I could have done without the big fight scene at the end.  It went on far too long for my tastes; however, Chance's vivid writing when it comes to describing everything from fashion to clothing to politics, more than made up for the overly long fight scene in my mind. Masks has a really great sense of time and place.

I am sad to report that Masks is largely erased.  From the description, Marta reads as white but given her class and position when she was alive, I am hard pressed to believe that is even remotely accurate.  During the 15th century, Venice was a major port  and given the available spices, could not have been as White as Palmer created.  Similarly there were no GLBT characters in the story. The only mention of homosexuality regarded the permissive position regarding prostitution to discourage men from so-called homosexual activity.

Masks is a book that really made me stop and reflect.  Yes, much of the story comes down to a murder mystery but the discussions of class and in particular the impossibility of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is quite compelling. The way that Chance broke down the politics in the vampire world and juxtaposed it to that of the human world was similarly compelling.  When powerful factions war, it's the poor who pay and Chance made this point beautifully.  One need not have read Chance's other series to enjoy this book but both are worth the read.