Curtis Craddock has created an interesting world setting. It contains a blend of 1600s court life and intrigues (complete with musketeers and powdered wigs!), steampunk, a mystical religious order, and bloodline magics. Humanity lives on giant floating land masses referred to as cratons. Air ships traverse the skies of the aerosphere between cratons. KIngdoms are ruled by specific saintborn bloodlines, direct descendants of the Risen Saints. The book has a great cover that evokes the contents within.
In An Alchemy of Masques and Shadows we follow the intrigues of two kingdoms. The l’Empire Celeste ruled by His Imperial Majesty, le Roi de Tonnerre, Leon XIV, a powerful Sanguinaire. Sanguinaires’ shadows, instead of the usual grey, are crimson and possess malevolent powers, fueled by draining the blood of others. The Aragoth kingdom is ruled by His Majesty el Rey de los Espejos, Carlemmo II, who is rapidly declining. Aragoth nobility are Glasswalkers with the ability to leave their body behind and cast their reflections through mirrors. There are seven existing saintborn bloodlines and it is the duty of the seven religious Artifex for maintaining the purity of each sorcerous bloodline. The only power closer to the Builder is the Omnifex. Those without saintly blood, and therefore without magic, are referred to as clayborn.
Enter our heroine, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs. Born to the Comte and Comtesse des Zephyrs she is of the Sanguinaire bloodline, but does not possess a blood shadow or any manifestation of magic. As such, she is officially labeled as unhallowed by the church. This alone would be condemning enough but Isabelle was born with a physical deformity as well. Imperfection is looked down upon by the Builder and deformity as a sign of the Breaker’s evil get. The two combined make her be despised by her own family. This devastation in childhood turns into a blessing in disguise as it allows Isabelle to hide her brilliant mind. Women are considered too weak to study mathematics and philosophy, and to do so is considered heretical. Since Isabelle’s birth she has been under the protection of the clever and devoted Jean-Claude, a King’s Own Musketeer, only answering to le roi himself.
When the adventure begins Isabelle is in her early twenties, naturally unmarried, and chaffing at the constraints of being a woman. A mathematical genius, she publishes theorems under the non de plume of Dujournal. Jean-Claude assists her in this charade as well as oversee her safety from those who might take it upon themselves to cleanse the world of those like Isabelle. Her quiet life is quickly up ended as she learns her father has sold her off to be married outside the Celestial Empire to an Aragothic principe, a Glasswalker, and one side of a power struggle for inheritance of the Aragoth kingdom.
The twists and turns, traitors, plots within plans, a scheme that spans hundreds of years, and a fantastic heroine added by her loyal musketeer made this a gripping read. It left me wanting to know more about the world. This is book one of The Risen Kingdoms, each kingdom is presumably led by a saintborn royalty, and we’ve only been introduced to two, with a third bloodline being mentioned. My only quibble is that I sometimes found it hard to keep track of everyone, their connections, motives, and where they stood. A little more editing might have helped. If we had an expanded rating scale, I would rate this a 3.75 stars.