Title: The Masked City
Author: Genevieve Cogman
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Published: Out now
Irene is working undercover in an alternative Victorian London. For this librarian spy, it’s business as usual – until her assistant Kai is abducted. Kai’s hidden dragon heritage means he has powerful enemies, and this act of aggression could trigger a war between his people and their greatest rivals. As they each represent the forces of order and chaos themselves, matters could turn unpleasant.
Irene’s mission to save Kai and avert Armageddon will take her to a dark, alternate Venice where it’s always Carnival. Here Irene will be forced to blackmail, fast talk and fight. Or she’ll face mayhem – at the very least.
The Masked City is the sequel to The Invisible Library, so if you fancy the sounds of a story in which a gutsy and resourceful heroine can enter fictitious worlds, it’s probably best you start there. The beginning is, after all, a very good place to start.
The Masked City picks up where The Invisible Library left off; Irene is stationed in the alternate Victorian steampunk London along with her surprisingly unscaly, occasionally inappropriately horny dragon student, Kai, and her local friend and ally Vale, who is clearly a variant on Sherlock Holmes (albeit one with rather more points in the social skills department). When Kai is kidnapped and taken to an alternate Venice where dragons do not belong, it’s up to Irene to rescue him and avert a catastrophic war between Fae and Dragons which would span worlds and hurt humanity.
While the concept of visiting fictitious worlds isn’t perhaps as shiny as it once was thanks to the likes of Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next series, here it’s polished and carried off with aplomb. The politics hinted at in The Invisible Library are given a bit more depth, with Irene reading between the lines of the mysterious Library’s instructions, meeting Kai’s powerful relations and even risking compromising herself by forming some very questionable alliances in order to get him back.
It’s not all po-faced politics either; here we have a series and a heroine who don’t take themselves too seriously. For instance, the opening of the book consists of an excerpt from “The Student Librarian’s Handbook” which not only gives some much needed context to the opposing sides of Fae and Dragons, but contains some of the funniest footnotes I’ve seen outside of a Pratchett novel. Irene herself is a wonderful protagonist – she is principled, sensible, confident and clever, displaying great sangfroid in the face of mortal peril and keeping her appealingly dry sense of humour which prevents her from becoming too good to be true. She is a female fantasy protagonist for adults.
The only small niggle is that Irene, despite possessing an almost preternaturally level head and lightning quick wits, does occasionally need rescuing at some vital moments. Admittedly nobody is perfect, but having a man arrive to save the day does slightly diminish her achievements and the reputation she is (unintentionally but deservedly) building, both with other characters and readers.
Still, Irene isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty in her quest. Apart from allying herself with factions from both sides, she stows away on a magical Train, infiltrates a group of Fae, beats up werewolves, and gets into gun fights. And that’s before she even attempts the prison break. It’s also great to see her use the Voice of the Library more often to get out of tight spots, as you might expect, without it becoming a get out of jail free card.
The alternate Venice is, like the alternate London where Irene is stationed, incredibly well realised . It is a world high in Chaos, making it well suited to the Fae but poison to Kai and his kind. Mixing reality with fantasy tropes not usually found in the same world and Irene’s abilities as a Librarian makes for some brilliantly clever and engaging twists while still adhering to the series’ internal logic.
An action packed adventure worthy of Indiana Jones, The Masked Library is smart steampunk, with style. This is a story written by a fantasy fan who uses her knowledge of the genre and the English language to give us a fast and furious roller coaster of fantastical fun, not to mention one of my favourite female protagonists of all time.
GS Rating: 4/5
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)