February 05, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: THESE VICIOUS MASKS, by Tarun Shanker, Kelly Zekas

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Jaded, bored, and sarcastic, Evelyn Wyndham, at an eminently marriageable age, is deeply disinterested, and thought to be the tiniest bit odd both by her parents, and by well-bred Bramhurst society at large. She's indifferent to their opinion, however, because she's mostly indifferent to everything that isn't her envious and wistful attention to her friend Catherine's travels on the Continent - oh, if she could only GO! - her younger sister, Rose, and Rose's prospects of being a doctor someday. The Wyndham girls have become well-known throughout their community for seeing associates through the frightening fevers and terrible consumptions which plague England and sending them on their way to health, and now at Sir Winston's ball, given in honor of his nephew Sebastian Braddock, even before the dancing even begins, Rose is being stared at and whispered about, although Mr. Braddock is the worst, the way he stares like a loon, makes mention of her miracles ... then basically runs away.

The ball is as tiresome as Evelyn suspected it would be, but for Mr. Kent, an old friend who always provides her entertainment. Seeing a large stranger peering into the drawing room from outside worries Evelyn tremendously. When Evelyn finds Mr. Braddock furiously ordering the large man away from Rose, her curiosity edges into dismay ...! Who is he, and what does he want? Rose assures Evelyn that the man has an ill sister, but Evelyn is more worried by the way Mr. Braddock snarls at the man, acting as if Rose is his possession to which the stranger has no right. When he mentions her "powers," in such an odd way, Evelyn is on edge. Certainly, Rose is beautiful and good, and of course, as she's now marriageable age, the gentlemen will be interested, but all Rose needs is to start collecting attention from odd men. Gathering her oblivious sister, Evelyn insists that the family cut their time at the ball short.

The morning after the ball, Rose is gone, her room shows signs of a disordered exit, and a scribbled note saying all the wrong things is all that's left. Now Evelyn is convinced it's not Rose's medical skills that were in demand -- it was Rose herself, and that she's been kidnapped to London. Evelyn, against her parent's expressed wishes, heads for London -- on foot, until Mr. Kent happens upon her -- to the rescue. Her first clue along the road to finding Rose? Mr. Braddock, who seemed to have known the giant who asked her to see to his sister. Surely, that enigmatic and odd man must know something. But there are secrets, evasions, and mistakes ahead - and there's too much at stake for anyone to lose focus, or fall in love.

The novel concludes the sometimes worrying, sometimes frustrating search with a rather abrupt ending which leaves a clear gateway to the next novel.

Observations: This was a novel which for me was, by turns, entertaining and frustrating. Evelyn is hilariously deadpan, but her snarkiness is of a decidedly modern bent; it's hard to imagine a well-bred and high class Victorian girl as defiant and mouthy as she. There are bits and pieces of the novel which are picked up - and then discarded. The first is Evelyn's best friend Catherine, who is on the Continent -- her trip is everything Evelyn wants, at first, and then... she's not mentioned again, nor do the girls write, when letter writing and household arts seem to have made up most of how a young Victorian woman spent her time. Evelyn's parents are at first deeply concerned for their progeny's launch into society, and then when Rose disappears, they seem to vanish -- while it's believable that they would want to protect their family name, not even mounting a search for a disappeared younger daughter who is only seventeen seems a trifle beyond belief. To avoid spoilers, I'll only say that the conclusion is a gut punch that leaves a great deal to be desired and will frustrate some.

Some readers seeking to see themselves within the novel and within the fun setting of Victorian London may be disappointed; the authors leave no space for diversity, which, as there were Victorians of many ethnicities, is both inaccurate and unnecessarly, since this recreated Victorian London already has people with unheard of fantasy powers - apparently diversity is too far a stretch?

Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas met in a writing class, and began writing this book a few years later. Tarun is one of the few guys writing YA speculative fiction romance; I can't tell which is his perspective vs. his co-author's, but it's nice to welcome another guy into the field, and we can only wish him good things and hope to hear more from them both.

Conclusion: Some have called this book "X-Men meets Jane Austen;" to me it more resembles that frothy confection of a film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a beautiful movie with enormously enthralling effects, breathtaking cinematography, and an incomplete plot coupled with flawed and problematic storytelling. For those fans of snark and sisterhood, there's a great deal of potential to this debut book, and the series looks to have enormous teen appeal and will most likely be swallowed whole by some, but there are a few details yet to be worked out for those with a little more discriminating palette.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Swoon. After February 9th, you can find THESE VICIOUS MASKS by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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