I really enjoyed volume one of this series (The Accidental Alchemist), and I was looking forward to volume 2. The Masquerading Magician keeps up a lot of the things I liked about the first book, adds some good new stuff, but in the end loses some of the intrigue the novelty of the first book had.
Two additions make this book almost as good as the first: Dorian’s backstory and Zoe’s fellow alchemist Tobias. The recurring subplot of trying to save Dorian from turning fully to stone remains, and the mystery of his origins are opened up a bit, revealing a still-unsolved-by-the-end-of-the-book connection to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Some mysteries of the book Not Untrue Alchemy are opened up, allowing for some of the new possibilities in saving Dorian. Dorian’s backstory comes in chapters set in mid nineteenth century Paris that follow the book, and reveal how Dorian’s ‘father’, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, gets his hands on it, uses it to bring Dorian to life, and follows Dorian’s early life. We also learn who originally carved Dorian and for what likely purpose. Part of this life we already know from the first book, including how Dorian is taught to cook by a blind master chef, an event that gets paralleled to great effect in the modern time-line.
Tobias is the other bright spot in the book. He and Zoe met in the 1800s while they were both connected with the Underground Railroad, she as a healer and he as an escaped slave. Zoe thinks she recognizes her former friend from something she finds online, and they arrange a meeting, and it turns out it’s him, and he’s willing to help. Tobias is still a practicing alchemist, although he specializes in a more modern form, spiritual alchemy. Zoe needs a working alchemist because she hasn’t been doing alchemy for a long time, and what she has been doing lately is the alchemic equivalent of dark magic to keep Dorian alive, and it’s literally killing her (slowly). Tobias helps them figure out some new possibilities, and then goes home. In addition to helping work on the mystery, he also gives Zoe some new perspective on relationships with ordinary mortals. Zoe’s background in this area is a major part of why she sometimes has trouble with being around people, and her relationship with Max the detective is proof. It was going well at the end of the previous book, but here it only shows up as a source of tension. Hopefully, she takes Tobias’ advice.
The title mystery set in the present day, about a murder that takes placed during a magic show, isn’t especially interesting and neither are the characters involved. This part of the story is more background for the exploration of the past. I like the flashbacks, and what they are starting to set up. But the current-day gets ignored a little, and the resulting story and characters just don’t have the creative spark that they did in the first volume. What does work for me is how the part that binds the past and present storylines has to do with how Non Degenera Alchemia smells. There is a lot of emphasis on how the book smells at different points, and there is apparently some meaning, as the smell is different in various circumstances. As a professional book nerd, I appreciated this feature of the story. I really hope this element continues, but volume 3 isn’t out for a while yet, so I guess I’ll just have to wait.