A few weeks ago I had a sudden desire to read a Beauty and the Beast story (and that was even before the teaser for Disney’s live-action movie dropped!). So I checked out Beauty by Robin McKinley from the library—it’s a classic, and I haven’t read it in about ten years.
Then I went searching on Amazon for more. I went to the Kindle store, searched for “Beauty and the Beast,” set the sorting on “Price: Low to High,” and scanned through the free ebooks for anything that looked interesting. I was scrolling past the covers with shirtless dudes on them when I found an interesting blurb for a fantasy book with a good number of five-star reviews.
And thus, in that strange way, I discovered Masque, which is quite possibly my favorite book I’ve read this year. It’s given me such a book hangover; I’ve read it twice and haven’t been able to read anything else since.
Lady Isabella Farrah, daughter of the Ambassador to Glause, has had a nasty shock: one of her oldest friends has been gruesomely murdered in the middle of the Ambassadorial Ball. Belle is determined to find the murderer, no matter the danger, but the pesky Commander of the Watch, Lord Pecus, seems to think that this is his investigation…and he also seems to think that Belle has some part in breaking his hereditary curse.
Have you ever had the feeling that the characters (and consequently the author) of a book are more clever than you? For me, this is a treasured find! Belle is a gem of a protagonist; witty and take-charge, she is a strong female character that doesn’t have to punch anybody. She reads people like a book, and takes her fashion as seriously as her diplomacy. I felt like she was always one half-step ahead of me throughout the story, and it was so much fun.
Though the Beauty and the Beast tale is at the heart of this story, it’s transformed into so much more. It’s primarily a suspenseful mystery, with some action, intrigue, and subtle romance, all in vaguely steampunk setting with magic; it further manages to flirt with the idea of being a novel of manners, Jane Austen-style. The fairy tale’s story elements don’t really kick in until about halfway through, and even then I forgot about them half the time (which is hilarious considering that’s why I wanted to read the story in the first place).
Our Beast is Lord Pecus,whose name somehow calls to mind both pectoral muscles and the peccary, and who has the distinction of being one of the few people who can occasionally out-think Belle. Their relationship grows nicely, and deftly avoids some of the more “problematic” aspects of the traditional tale.
The cast of characters is rounded out nicely by several of Belle’s entertaining friends, her equally bad-ass sister Susan, some charming Horselords, a cute Watchman, a magic book that functions like Google, and two ragamuffin children in Belle’s employ who are skilled at both magic and causing trouble. Some of the bad guys are nuanced, and some are not, but all of them work in the story.
One last odd note: this book reminded me of Seraphina, which is high praise as that book is one of my favorite YA fantasy stories of all time. At first I wasn’t sure why, but then I kept thinking of more things they have in common: murder mystery, little tech devices, liberal use of words like “perspicacious.”
In any case, the writing is clever and witty, the story and characters are wonderful, and I will be enjoying the book for years to come.