2017’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is the first volume in Curtis Craddock’s secondary world dynastic fantasy, The Risen Kingdoms.
Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs’ deformed hand should have earned her a quiet death at birth; she should have been smothered or perhaps discarded over the edge of the floating island that is her homeland. Spared by a quick-thinking bystander, Isabelle proves completely innocent of the Sanguinaire blood-magic that signifies descent from a saint, descent that forms the basis of the aristocracy’s lofty status in l’Empire Céleste. She is therefore a social pariah and completely useless to her ambitious father. He leaves her care to Jean-Claude, the fatherly musketeer who helped save her.
This should have been the end of her story … but fate had other plans for Isabelle.
Being ignored by her malevolent father isn’t so bad — the last time he paid attention to Isabelle, he reduced her best friend Marie to a mindless living zombie — but her intellectual ambitions are constrained by the fact she is a woman and thus, as punishment for Saint Iav’s original sin, barred from education. She settles for publishing under a masculine pen-name while trying not to dwell on her likely fate once her father dies.
L’empire Céleste’s rival, the kingdom of Aragoth, is searching for a fertile saint-blooded woman of noble birth who is willing to marry into the royal family. Aragoth has its own saint-blooded lineage, the Glasswalkers, but thanks to a historical near-extinction event, Glasswalkers are both uncommon and inbred. New blood is needed. The situation is so desperate that the royal family is willing to import a deformed, magicless foreign princess to wed the prince.
Marrying a stranger would be an upsetting idea were it not that this sort of arranged marriage is the norm for aristocrats. It’s also the case that the marriage offers Isabelle more security than she has at home (at least until she either proves barren or produces a son, after which she is disposable). She’ll be far from her family, who almost but not quite vampires. As a sweetener, Artifex Kantelvar promises that he will try to restore the mind of Isabelle’s poor friend Marie.
Isabelle can see many ways in which the marriage could go horribly wrong. Indeed, assassination attempts begin while she is still en route to Aragoth. Powerful people oppose the marriage. Par for the course; Aragoth’s politics are notoriously complex and bloody.
For the moment she has powerful allies who are determined to see her live long enough to bear a son. However, these people do not have her best interests at heart. Quite the contrary.
This is an example of a castle opera where I was less invested in who would next rule Aragoth (since none of the options seemed great and all results perpetrate a dismal system) and more invested in “will Isabelle and her entourage think of legging it to somewhere beyond the Temple’s reach?” or alternatively “does this setting’s technology extend to tumbrels and guillotines?” But that is not where the novel goes.
There are parallels between Craddock’s setting and that of Reaves’ The Shattered World. In both novels, a previous world was destroyed, leaving floating islands and kingdoms linked by flying boats. I expect this is a coincidence and not a homage to the 1984 novel, as that novel wasn’t all that well known.
The author has populated the setting with lots of interesting details — frex, all the aristocracy are descended from various saints — but the details aren’t necessarily new. Many things are rotoscoped from European history. L’empire is France but with quasi-vampires; Aragoth is Spain, but with even more aristocratic inbreeding (as if that were possible). There is even an analog of the Umayyad conquest of Hispania in the Skaladin conquest of Aragoth (a conquest somewhat more genocidal than the Umayyad conquest, thus the disappearance of most of the Glasswalkers). There’s a range between “inspired by” and “the reader can still see the scratches where the serial numbers were filed off.” This novel is very scratchy.
In fact, the secret that drives the plot (a secret whose existence Isabelle only gradually discovers) is closely inspired by a 1982 best-seller (name elided to protect the guilty) or perhaps the traditions that inspired it. Well, Craddock is hardly the first to draw from that particular well, as Dan Brown could attest.
Isabelle is a plucky protagonist and readers who spend less time looking at the backdrops than I do might enjoy the book more than I did.