Mike Reeves called City of Masks a “magicless fantasy.” I wondered what that could be until I read the book. Having done so, I can say that it isn’t a fantasy (there are no fantasy elements in the story), but it is a wonderful, tightly-crafted tale with richly-developed characters and an intricate plot in a highly imaginative setting. I believe the reason Reeves calls it a fantasy is because it takes place in an alternate world, but of course that isn’t a defining characteristic of fantasy; many fantasies don’t take place in alternate worlds, but all fantasies include fantastic elements, which City of Masks does not. But enough on categories and genres.
The alternate world of this story is a city, Bonvidaeo, where everyone wears a mask at all times. Not only does everyone wear a mask but everyone is supposed to behave in a manner appropriate to the mask being worn, and there are restriction on who can wear what masks when. In fact, the city has adopted (and enforced) a religious doctrine called “characterism” which asserts that the person wearing the mask is the mask and must be treated accordingly. Opposing this is an underground which preaches the heretical doctrine of “personalism,” the idea that the mask and the person are two separate entities.
The story centers around this religious dispute and a series of grisly murders that touches upon it.
The book is told in first-person via the memoirs and journals of several characters. Most of it is from the point of view of a foreign envoy who is there to represent his nation and the immigrants from it into the city of Bonvidaeo, one of whom is the first known victim of the killer. In the course of tracking down the murderer, a twisted political plot is uncovered, love is found, surprises arise behind the masks, there is swordplay, an assassination plot, a beautiful and devious and powerful woman, and, of course, quite a bit of disguise and impersonation. This sort of first-person writing is hard to bring off successfully but Reeves does succeed in giving each perspective its own voice. I am going to give this book five stars for superior characterization, plot, and writing style, all three, although none of them stood out enough to justify five stars by itself.
City of Masks isn’t a fantasy and therefore not something I would normally review, but it is certainly not lacking in imagination and Bonvidaeo is well worth exploring. The pace may be a little slow for readers accustomed to books packed with action, but there is plenty of action in this story.